Malaysian emulators of Arab Spring caught Kuala Lumpur authorities off guard, but they are using all means possible to quash the Bersih 2.0 protest movement. Preventive arrests, pressures on bloggers and the media, and website blockings during local elections are omens of worse yet to come for the general elections. The campaign is expected to play out primarily on the Internet, which remains a favorite space for expression in a country where the traditional press is regularly muzzled by the regime.
For more information, read the Malaysia chapter of the 2011 “Enemies of the Internet” report.
High-risk general elections?
Political campaigning and freedom of information are not compatible in Malaysia. In the run-up to the local elections in Sarawak (on the island of Borneo), in April 2011, many opposition and news websites were the target of DDoS-type cyberattacks, including those of Sarawak Report, Radio Free Sarawak, Dayak Baru Blog and Malaysiakini. This use of cyberattacks to regulate Internet content does not bode well for the general elections expected in 2012, at a time when online bloggers and journalists will have the crucial role to play of informing the population. Some bloggers such as Wong Chin Huat (researcher), Sivarasa (lawyer and MP), and Haris Ibrahim (lawyer) were denied entry to the island.
In July 2011, 30,000 Malaysians representing all strata of the population, rallied in the streets in response to Bersih 2.0’s call for transparent elections. A general election should take place by March 2013. Both before and during the protest rally, which united Malaysia’s entire civil society, the authorities arrested hundreds of opposition and human rights activists and threatened to prosecute those media that denounced police violence. The capital, Kuala Lumpur, was literally closed down on the eve of July 9, 2011 by police roadblocks set up to systematically search all vehicles, and T-shirts with a Bersih logo, or even yellow T-shirts (the organization’s logo color) were banned. The anti-government Malaysiakini website was then subjected to a new wave of cyberattacks.
Bloggers and netizens under pressure
A dangerous precedent was set for journalists and bloggers who cover political scandals: blogger Amizudin Ahmat was sentenced to pay exorbitant damages and costs of up to 300,000 Malaysian ringgits (approximately USD 100,000) to the Minister of Information, Communications and Culture, Rais Yatim, for an article judged defamatory, despite his apologies and the retraction of the offending article.
A defamation suit was launched against another blogger, Ahmad Sofian Yahya (Sekupangdua) who exposed a misuse of power, accusing deputy Nga Kor Ming of arranging for a contract with the State of Perak to be awarded to his wife’s company. The blogger retaliated by filing a countersuit against the politician.
The charges against satirical blogger Irwan Abdul Raman, who blogs under the name Hassan Skodeng, were dropped in March 2011. He had been charged with disseminating false news after posting a humorous message about “State warming.” He thanked the blogger community for their support. His lawyer stated that he hoped such cases would not “kill satirical talent in the country.”
Political cartoonist Zunar, charged with “sedition” for having posted satiric drawings about his country’s political and social situation, whose books are still banned from publication in Malaysia, presented a solo exhibit of 80 of his cartoons in London entitled “To Fight through Cartoon.”
Real legislative reform or empty promises?
In an effort to bolster his image as a reformer, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak announced in September 2011 a repeal of the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA), which had been used until then by the authorities to arbitrarily pursue and detain journalists, bloggers and opposition leaders in order to serve their political ends. One year earlier, peaceful vigils had been held to ask for such that repeal. Although this announcement was welcomed by the traditional media and by certain international media, the opposition and online media are recommending vigilance, for just a few months earlier, in December 2010, a cyber sedition bill had been introduced in the Council of Ministers.
Social media “junkies”?
The new media appear to be the most effective remedy to compensate for self-censorship. Election forecasts, as well as corruption cases, or negotiations on the installation of the next nuclear power plant can be broached there more freely than anywhere else. Genuine political debates are held online, not in the traditional media, which leaves the Internet and bloggers particularly vulnerable in a pre-general election climate.