While the role of the Internet and of the new media is expanding, the opposition press is being subjected to censorship, and the government is attempting to prepare the media landscape for the approaching elections. In view of the proposed cyber sedition law, and the fact that bloggers and critics are still under pressure, social networks seem to be the most effective cure for any impulse to practice self-censorship and the best stage for much-needed debates which the traditional media cannot cover.
New media, new political scene
News sites and blogs have flourished as an alternative to the state-controlled traditional media. The new media have earned genuine credibility. High-quality online journalism has emerged which is tackling crucial topics on websites such as NutGraph, Malaysian Insider and Malaysiakini, and on blogs like Articulations, Zorro Unmasked, People’s Parliament and Malaysia Today.
At the same time, the government decided, in June and July 2010, to limit distribution of the daily Harakah and to suspend the publication of Suara Keadilan, Kabar Era Pakatan and Rocket – four opposition newspapers – by means of the annual publishing permit renewal system. The authorities seem to be paving the way for media coverage of the upcoming general elections, which may be held in 2011.
The regime’s persecution of political caricaturist Zunar seems to confirm the theory that the authorities have taken over the country’s political communications. The latter has been charged with "sedition" for having published drawings critical of Malaysia’s political and social situation. An obsolete publishing law (the Printing and Publication Act) promotes censorship and bans the circulation of his books, notably his “Cartoon-o-phobia” collection. These caricatures, which are in no way seditious, illustrate with finesse the evils of Malaysian politics and mock the ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional (BN).
Given the context, the new media have a crucial role to play. The Internet – a relatively free space compared to the traditional media – is an unequalled discussion and debate platform for dissidents and an effective remedy against self-censorship, which dominated the nation a few years ago. The blogosphere is particularly buoyant. In view of the upcoming elections, the social media are an invaluable tool which the political parties need to exploit in order to better reach their constituents, appear more sensitive to their concerns and hear what they have to say. The opposition was very quick to use these new media, and the government and incumbent party followed suit. By enabling them to reach a heterogeneous audience, the Internet challenges the barriers of traditional censorship.
Viewpoints never aired in the press are discussed on the social networks. A ministerial order can even be criticised there, especially when sources within the government leak breaking news. In August 2010, Premesh Chandran, founder of the news website Malaysiakini, told Agence France-Presse that the new media have “changed the way journalists work” and that this “new immediacy hampers government attempts to control the way journalists report a story,” since the latter now have access to live reactions from experts and members of the opposition. Often debates started in the Assembly continue in the “Twitterverse.” For example, Khairy Jamaluddin, leader of the ruling party’s youth wing, swiftly responded to the government’s decision to maintain the ban on students joining political parties, labelling it as “gutless and indicative of outdated thinking.” An example of successful online mobilisation was the protest launched on Facebook against the construction of a 100-story tower, which recently had a positive outcome.
In 1996, within the framework of a campaign promoting its IT sector, the authorities had promised not to censor the Internet. They were launching the Multimedia Super Corridor, a special economic and technological zone – a promise they had repeatedly made to Reporters Without Borders in 2009.
However, rumour has it that the government may have created a group of several hundred bloggers to inject positive pro-regime content online and entice opposition bloggers to commit violations or give out false news. Their aim is supposedly to neutralise netizens critical of the government.
Protest against the "white terror”
On 1 August 2010, two associations held peaceful vigils in several of the country’s cities in order to press the authorities to abolish the ISA (Internal Security Act). Suaram, a human rights organisation and Gerakan Mansuhkan ISA, a movement specially created to urge the repeal of these draconian laws, organised the peace rally on the occasion of the law’s 50th anniversary.
Although violating the Malaysian Constitution and the country’s international commitments, the Internal Security Act, nicknamed the “white terror,” is an effective political strategy for suppressing any form of opposition. Under Section 8, the police can detain anyone without trial for up to two years based on a ministerial order which can be renewed indefinitely. It was enacted in 1960 to combat a Communist insurrection. This law flouts international human rights standards such as the ban on arbitrary detention and the right to due process and an impartial trial. The authorities abuse the ISA to serve their political ends by pursuing and locking up journalists, bloggers and opposition leaders.
The crackdown on these protests was excessive. Despite their peaceful intentions, demonstrators were chased, beaten and arrested. The police questioned blogger Badrul Hisham Shaharin ; the editor of the civil society organisation SABM’s website, Ambrose Poh ; Enalini from the association co-organising the protest, SUARAM; Syed from the other co-organiser, GMI; and S. Arutchelvan, Secretary-General of the PSM (Malaysia’s Socialist Party) and editor of its publication. They were all released within twelve hours of their initial interrogation.
A cyber sedition bill is said to be under review. Introduced in the Council of Ministers in December 2010, it poses yet another danger to online freedom of expression in Malaysia. The Minister of the Interior supposedly announced that the text would dictate what can be deemed illegal on the Internet and would be based on the extremely repressive 1948 Sedition Act.
The Sedition Act is already very harsh: it punishes incitement to hatred, criticism of the government, promotion of hostility between “races” or social classes, and challenges to the established order or the ruler’s sovereign rights and privileges. Anyone found guilty faces up to five years in prison and a fine of 5000 ringgits (1,640 U.S. dollars). Some thirty other laws may also be used to control the media and the Internet, including the ISA, the 1984 Press and Publications Law, the 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act, and the Sedition Act.
Bloggers and netizens under pressure
The case receiving the broadest media coverage is undoubtedly that of blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin, known by the anagramme RPK, host of the Malaysia Today website. He was detained for 56 days under ISA charges, starting on 12 September 2008, but was freed by court order in November that year after his lawyer petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus with a Malsysian High Court. The authorities appealed. Hated by the regime for his repeated allegations of corruption and abuse of authority, he is still facing sedition and defamation charges for suggesting that the Prime Minister and his wife were involved in a murder linked to alleged kickbacks surrounding the purchase of French submarines. Forced then to flee the country, he has been living in exile ever since and is now being sought by Malaysian authorities. In November 2010, the latter announced that RPK was free to return to his homeland, since the two-year charges against him had expired. For now, the blogger is opting to remain in exile until he receives firm government guarantees that he will not be retried, because the authorities could possibly make new accusations against him.
Irwan Abdul Raman, better known as Hassan Skodeng, was charged on 2 September 2010 with having published on 25 March 2010 a satirical article about Tenaga, a state-owned energy firm, on his blog. He is being sued by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) for his post entitled ”TNB to sue WWF over Earth Hour,” under Article 233 (1)(a) of the 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act for “improper use of the network by making, creating, soliciting and initiating the transmission of obscene, indecent, false, menacing or offensive in character with malicious intent.” He faces up to a one-year prison term and a fine of 50,000 ringgits (16,400 U.S. dollars). In this post, he allegedly announced the false news piece that the national public utility company, Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB), Malaysia’s main energy provider, allegedly planned to file a lawsuit against the WWF for its Earth Hour demonstration against global warming. The blogger deleted the post but pleaded not guilty. The Malaysian opposition has called the trial “ridiculous.”
In 2010, several bloggers were prosecuted, including Khairul Nizam Abd Ghani, who was charged with “insulting royalty.” This freelance computer technician had posted on his blog, adukataruna.blogspot.com, comments critical of Sultan Iskandar Ismail of the State of Johor, who died in January 2010. He is facing up to one year in prison and a fine; even though he has apologised and withdrawn the incriminating article from his blog.
Malaysian bloggers are still under strong pressure, and their positions are finding substantial support among Malaysian citizens, who are no longer content with the official version of “the facts.” For now, it is the blogs, news websites and social networks which are reporting events in the Arab world, while the traditional media provide minimal coverage. In view of the approaching elections, the arm wrestling between bloggers and the authorities is likely to get tougher.