In Malaysia, attacks against media, bloggers, to control information ahead of elections
July 27, 2007
26 July 2007
Source: Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), Malaysia
The following is a 25 July 2007 capsule report from CIJ, a SEAPA partner in Malaysia:
Attacks against media, bloggers could be move to secure control before elections
In recent months, the Malaysian government’s rhetoric on punishing “irresponsible” bloggers is being translated into reality. Websites and blogs have been targeted one after another, and on the flimsiest pretext. The axe seems to fall on a particular group of bloggers and online writers who take due precaution, including identifying themselves, moderating their postings and checking their facts. Their predicament challenges the government claims that these writers disseminate lies and rumours and calls into question the government’s real motive.
All of these blogs and websites share a common thread – they write about corruption and misuse of power by top leaders of the government. Web-based daily “Malaysiakini.com” (http://clicks.aweber.com/z/ct/?fH2WGmQM4uMv_BatJrZfsg) and blogger Nathaniel Tan, who were among those affected, say is the explicit reason why they have been targeted. An exposé in Raja Petra Kamaruddin’s blog “Malaysia Today” (http:// http://www.malaysia-today.net), for example, was catalytic
in putting the Inspector-General of Police, Musa Hassan, on the radar screen of the Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA), while Malaysiakini.com’s follow-up stories on the “timber kickbacks” in the state of Sarawak compelled its chief minister to respond to the allegations.
Collectively, such online content has brought into focus the government’s poor performance in its promised fight against corruption, a promise that secured for the then incumbent Barisan Nasional coalition a landslide victory in the 2004 elections. In March, the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC) noted that foreign investors’ perception of corruption in the country has worsened. Adding salt to the wound is the outbreak of scandals, such as the blow to the ACA’s credibility when a former officer alleged Director-General Zulkipli Mat Noor of corruption, and the acquittal of Eric Chia, the former technocrat for national steel corporation Perwaja, from the charges of misappropriating funds of more than RM70million (approx. US$20million), after a nine-year investigation and a three-year trial process.
While the threats and intimidation against bloggers have been happening over the year, the latest warning against bloggers, reported on 25 July, is the strongest to date. De-facto Law Minister Nazri Aziz threatened to use against bloggers the Internal Security Act (ISA) – which allows for detention without trial – and the Sedition Act.
The warning comes closely after a string of events. On 23 July, ruling party United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) lodged a police report against “Malaysia Today” owner Raja Petra, charging the latter of insulting the King over comments posted by others on his blog. “Malaysia Today” is often rife with postings of internal goings-on of UMNO politics, corruption in the higher echelons in the police and the alleged interference of the prime minister’s son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin, in the country’s administration.
A fortnight before that, on 13 July, police arrested blogger Tan and held him for four days under the widely criticised Official Secrets Act. Tan, who also works for the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), was suspected of possessing documents alleging Deputy Internal Security Minister Johari Baharum of corruption, based on an anonymous comment posted on his blog and a link to a website. Tan was subsequently released without charges being laid on him.
Three days earlier, the youth wing of ruling party UMNO filed a complaint against another blogger, Tian Chua, who is also the information chief of the same opposition party PKR. Chua was investigated under the Communications and Multimedia Act over a controversial photomontage in his blog which illustrated a rumoured and potentially explosive photograph that had been the subject of a sensational ongoing murder trial of a Mongolian national.
In June, news site “Malaysiakini.com” was sued by Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud over a series of stories alleging Abdul Taib and his family of receiving RM32 million (approx. US$9 million) in kickbacks in return for timber export concessions.
These vocal blogs and websites stick out like sore thumbs against the context of government inaction on corruption. They break the legislative barriers of information, such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act, imposed by the government on print media, and the CMA that regulates television and radio stations. Over the years, government officials have been increasingly wary of the growing influence of blogs. The blogs of Jeff Ooi, Ahirudin Atan (who are being sued for defamation by a major newspaper group, the New Straits Times Press) and Raja Petra claim a readership of over one million each, while Malaysiakini.com attracts three million pageviews a month. Because of the popularity of such online sources, the Ministry of Internal Security has had to issue twice directives to mainstream print media not to quote from online sources, and the government announced in June the setting up of a taskforce to, among others, study ways to circumvent the Multimedia Bill of Guarantee, which limits the government from censoring the Internet.
It is apparent from the various cries and whinges of government officials, ranging from members of Parliament to senators, ministers to deputy ministers and senior leaders of UMNO, calling for the Internet to be censored that they are only concerned about online content “damaging” the ruling elite’s image. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi himself has stated that bloggers and online writers “misuse their freedom” and have used web space to “slander” him.
The vigilante mentality against the media and individual expressions also comes at a time when talk of a general election is gaining momentum. The Malaysian mainstream media is known for its lopsided and biased reporting in favour of the ruling coalition, especially during elections, and the clampdown against bloggers – and even the mainstream media, as regards opposition coverage – is indicative of the government’s perpetual control over critical information.
Using the excuse of preservation of public order and security, them government embarks on high-handed actions against bloggers and websites, but instead of chasing after anonymous commentators, it acts against the writers who dare to put their names on what they write and who consciously reject government labelling.
It seems that the government – in failing to control the free flow of information in cyber space, as it can and does in traditional media – is resorting to intimidation tactics against dissenters, particularly when it concerns opposition views and allegations of corruption.
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