Saturday, February 03, 2007

Hazy New World Order

Walk-With-Us_Bloggers_Paul.jpgUnited Malaysian Bloggers. More pix on Screenshots

I have restrained from talking about the defamation lawsuit by editors of New Straits Times against two well-known Malaysian bloggers -- Rocky and Jeff Ooi. This is because the news has been reported widely, while any commentary on the case during the court proceeding will be seen as subjudice, whether it's in the print media or in cyberspace.

Without commenting on the merit of the case, the defamation lawsuit definitely has had a chilling effect on bloggers, especially in Malaysia. It will also have effects on many online commentators elsewhere, including Sophie's World in Singapore, that comment frequently on events in Malaysia. Bloggers will now have to think very hard before typing the next word or pressing the post button for the next entry in their online diary.

The case has raised a lot of questions about individual online diaries called web logs, or more commonly known as blogs. Bloggers enjoy no immunity from the law but should bloggers be held in the same high standards as print media? How can bloggers express themselves freely in their online diary without the constant fear or threat of lawsuits? Will more bloggers hide behind the veil of anonymity? Will bloggers practise greater self-censorship? Will bloggers restrict readership or access to their web log? Should we all go back to the old-fashioned physical diary? How should aggrieved parties seek redress? How do aggrieved parties handle extra-territorial cases? How can governments counter the views in cyberspace that are often at odds with the establishment?

I don't have the answers, but I firmly believe that a heavy-handed and an overly legalistic approach towards bloggers is definitely not the answer.

One soft approach has been adopted by Singapore's ruling People's Action Party, which ironically had not tolerated dissent well in the past. According to The Straits Times today, PAP has quietly started "counter-insurgency" against its online critics. This is done through party members going into Internet forums and blogs to rebut anti-establishment views and putting up postings anonymously. That is the right approach. It's healthier to have an exchange of views rather than an exchange of lawyers' letters.

Whatever the outcome of the defamation case in Malaysia, there will be endless debate on the general role of old media and the new media.

There will be more questions than answers as we all move towards the New World Order.