Internet Enemies 2011: Countries under surveillance – Malaysia

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 Malaysian High Court. The authorities appealed.

Domain name: .my
Population: 28,250,000
Number of Internet users: 16,902,600
Average monthly salary: between 850 and 900 dollars
Number of imprisoned netizens: 0

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.