No escape for Net abusers
The Borneo Post - Thursday, 12 December, 2002  Front page
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KUCHING: The Sarawak Attorney­General's Office welcomed the landmark ruling by Australia's High Court that legal action can be taken against online publishers from anywhere in the world for posting defamatory remarks on the Internet.

Commenting on the latest development, Attorney-General Datuk JC Fong said the ruling meant that the public would now have an avenue to sue individuals or publishers who posted defamatory remarks on the Internet.

The Australian High Court ruled on Tuesday that online publishers could be sued in the place where the material was viewed, not the country of origin where it was uploaded.

He added that laws were being put in place in Sarawak and Malaysia in general to take legal action against publishers of such online materials.

A private sector legal expert, meanwhile, commented that it was possible that courts in Sarawak might recognise the decision as any case involving other Commonwealth country was of persuasive authority.

Any decision made by the High Court in other Commonwealth countries such as Australia or New Zealand can be a precedent.  State Police Commissioner Datuk Mohd Yusoff Jaafar who has been vocal against online hate messages and defamatory articles also welcomed the decision.

"We are observing the development closely, and all I can say is that the public and web publishers must take the cue," he said when contacted at his office yesterday.

Earlier this month, police have formed a special task force with other federal agencies in collaboration with the State Attorney-General's Office to deal with online defamation following the posting of defamatory and hate messages on the Sarawak Talk, an online message forum, hosted by a website server originating from Australia.

"It is very similar to rumour mongering which can have devastating effect if left unchecked," he warned.

The police, he said, could take action through the Internal Security Act (ISA), Seditions Act and also under Section 298 A of the Penal Code. Yusoff again appealed to the public to refrain from posting messages touching on sensitive issues involving race and religion.

"It is bad for young surfers who could be easily influenced by the sentiments posted over the Internet. Repercussion to the society at large will be very severe if steps are not taken now," he said.  Another legal expert said the Australian court ruling had its pros and cons.

"I think it is good that now people cannot hide behind the unanimous defamatory messages posted from the web server of other countries besides Malaysia.

"It is good in the sense that it will help to curtail people who abuse the system by using it in an improper and disgraceful way," he said.  On the other hand he felt that the freedom of expression would be adversely affected by the decision.

However, he observed that the ruling referred to publishers, and those implicated could go after the publishers although the site was uploaded in another country.

"The host of such websites where web users can post the hate messages should be made accountable," he said.

If the ruling were to become an international precedent, online publishers would have to consider potential legal action not only in their own country but in every country where their articles could be downloaded from the Internet.