Govt hints of licensing for news sites and blogs

By uppercaise
Press licensing controls may be extended to the Internet, covering not only news web sites such as MalaysiaKini, Malaysia Today and Malaysian Insider, but possibly also blogs and Facebook pages.

Proposed amendments to the repressive Printing Press and Publications Act are now under discussion by the Malaysian government officials, the Home Ministry said yesterday.

The hint of the new controls was made on the eve of new “guidelines” on sedition which the Home Ministry is expected to announce today. Current laws on sedition — criticised for being outdated — have been often used against dissenters and opposition politicians on the grounds of inciting racial tension or “hate of the government”.

It is another sign of the ruling Barisan Nasional’s growing conservatism and a heightened siege mentality since its losses in the March 2008 general election, as it prepares for an early general election in the face of the Internet’s broader reach among the population and the possible impact on the electorate of the largely uncontrolled content available online.

The Internet was credited with having helped the decisive victory of opposition parties in five states in 2008, and the loss of the Barisan Nasional’s two-thirds majority in Parliament.

Unable to effectively counter the barrage of exposés, leaks, commentaries and analyses being published on the Internet, the Government is now falling back on repression through legal muscle, in a throwback to conditions existing in the late 1980s, when the Mahathir Mohamed government tightened press controls and introduced annual press licensing.

Mahathir was later to guarantee that the Internet would be free of censorship — and the Internet thrived from the broad leeway granted by the Government as it vainly sought to convince foreign investors to become partners in turning Malaysia into a new Silicon Valley.

Even if repressive press controls are extended to the Internet, as is feared, these controls would not, technically, amount to censorship, although the effect would be the same: to throttle freedom of expression and force writers and online journalists to practise self-censorship.

In recent years newspaper editors have already been requested officially in letters from the KDN to practise self-censorship, and ruling politicians have often urged editors and journalists to do so.

A hint of the new controls being discussed was given yesterday by the Home Ministry’s secretary-general Mahmood Adam. Bernama reported that he said the Printing Presses and Publications Act would be amended to expand its scope and to include ‘publications’ posted online.

The Ministry was looking at the definition of “publication” and whether it should include Internet content, blogs or Facebook to expand the Act due to the changing landscape of the digital era. This was “to plug loopholes” — a clear hint that the Government intended to bring the Internet under the same kind of tight controls that it exercises on the press.

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