By Pathma Subramaniam | The Edge Markets

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 yesterday.

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

This Facebook page garnered a vast number of online users to support the campaign against section 114A of the Evidence Act.

Salleh projected that this “liberal thinking” has spurred the people into committing acts that threaten national security and public order.

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

He said 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 curbed freedom of expression.

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

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

“I want it to be a threat when it comes to human rights abuses and dictators,” said Bon, who administers LoyarBurok, a community blog site focusing on human rights abuses. He said the public sphere might raise the alarm for a “corrupt regime” which tends to look at free expression “as a threat to national security”.

Prominent panellist, blogger, and columnist Marina Mahathir also 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 the government is “upping the risk” by introducing legislation that tries to regulate social media.

“Although social media sites did not start the Arab Spring, they certainly did facilitate it,” she said, adding that 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 Profession Act, which states that lawyers are 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.