Pathma Subramaniam of writes for The Edge on the standing-room only session at the International Malaysian Law Conference 2012. This article was originally published here on 27 September 2012 and is reproduced.

KUALA LUMPUR (Sept 27): Does social media pose a national security threat? Or, is it merely a useful networking tool to generate awareness about particular causes? These were among the issues raised by panellists at the National Young Lawyers Forum on Thursday.

The topic of discussion at the forum, which ran concurrently with the International Malaysia Law Conference held at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre, was “Social Media: Guilty! For Updating Your Facebook and Tweeting”.

Debunking popular notions that social media sites are a menace to national security, lawyer and columnist Azhar Azizan said it is ridiculous to regard networking tools as a threat.

“Facebook and Twitter are good at publicising things. As such, I don’t understand the government’s fear, where (Information, Communications and Culture Minister) Datuk Seri Rais Yatim and the inspector-general of police (Tan Sri Ismail Omar) had said that Facebook and Twitter are a threat to national security,” said Azhar, who is better known by his moniker, Art Harun.

“Like the Arab Spring – we cannot say it (social media) caused the Arab Spring; the underlying cause existed long before. Facebook and Twitter just brought it out in the open,” he said.

He noted that activism is supported by an “underlying and organised” movement, while social media is a “network”.

In March, Malay-language newspaper, Utusan Malaysia, quoted Public Order and Internal Security director, Datuk Salleh Mat Rashid, as saying that Malaysians are “influenced by liberal thinking” having unlimited access to the Internet.

Salleh projected that this “liberal thinking” has fuelled the people into willing to commit acts that threaten national security and public order.

“To me, activism is about putting right, things which we think are not right,” stressed Azhar.

He also highlighted that social media sites had been pivotal in amalgamating a vast number of online users to support the campaign against Section 114A of the Evidence Act, which has further clipped freedom of expression.

“It was successful because of Facebook and Twitter, but I think that was because there is lesser risk involved,” added Azhar.

His views, however, were countered by lawyer Edmund Bon, who said he preferred to regard social media as “activist media”. He further surprised the audience when he said that “if properly used, it can be considered a threat to national security”.

“I want it to be threat when it comes to human rights abuses and dictators,” said Bon, who administers Loyar Buruk, a community blog site focussing on human rights abuses.

He pointed out that the public sphere might raise alarms to a “corrupt regime” which tends to look at free expression “as a threat to national security”.

Another prominent panellist, blogger and columnist, Marina Mahathir, took issue with Azhar’s comments on the lower risk involved in online activism.

The former Malaysian AIDS council president said the task of such social media is to connect people.

She said that the government is “upping the risk” by introducing legislation that tries to regulate the social media.

“Although, social media site did not start the Arab Spring, they certainly did facilitate it,” she said, adding, even local authorities are going after individuals who post problematic comments on Facebook.

On the sidelines, Bon also called on legal practitioners to be actively involved in activism, citing Section 42 of the Legal Professions Act, which states lawyers are supposed to uphold the cause of justice without fear or favour.

“Lawyers may be in the middle or upper income group but it also means that lawyers are supposed to help the poor, the public or comment on improper legislation.

“Lawyers must see themselves as being part of a bigger class to help highlight the abuses of the elite,” said Bon.

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