Internet censorship

The Nut Graph

BACKLASH was instantaneous when Information, Communications and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim announced on 7 Aug 2009 that the Malaysian government was planning to filter the internet. 

Apparently modelled after China's Green Dam software, Rais said the Malaysian filter was intended to weed out online smut, especially where children were concerned.

"Those who call themselves liberals should look at what has happened to other countries who have become victims, where child sex occurs and pornography is widespread," Rais said.

Barely hours after Rais's statement, none other than Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak said that the government would not censor the internet. He said such a move would be ineffective in a borderless world where information flows freely. "If we put a form of control, the people cannot accept it," he said.

Finally after much heat, Rais himself backed down on 12 Aug, saying the government would scrap its internet filtering plan. However, Rais said that the government would use existing laws to prevent internet abuse.

Rais (File pic © British and Foreign
Commonwealth Office)

"We will not filter the internet, but Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin (Hussein), (Minister in the Prime Minister's Department) Datuk Seri Nazri (Aziz) and I have been tasked to look for instances of sedition, fraud and child pornography," he said. The issue thus appears to be somewhat laid to rest, at least for now.

But more interesting than Rais's about-turn is Najib's, given that in 2005, the then deputy prime minister himself made an almost identical recommendation to filter the internet

"We will see what we can do because [access to online pornography] is very worrying.

"Within government departments, we have introduced specific software to block access to such websites. We will expand this policy to include other areas, too," said Najib.

In a country like Malaysia, any talk by the government of filtering the internet immediately raises alarm bells among civil society groups and opposition politicians. As recently as September 2008, a directive was issued by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) to all local internet service providers to block, a popular political blog and news aggregator. Barely 12 days after that, the blog's founder Raja Petra Kamarudin was arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA). In an environment like this, the overriding assumption among the public is that online censorship is meant to clamp down on political dissent.