Unity government pursuing reprehensible crack down on free speech

Malaysia going back to the Mahathir era in suppression of free speech in the 1990s

Over the last seven months, the unity government led by prime minister Anwar Ibrahim has slowly been setting up new architecture to suppress freedom of speech. Some of this has been by stealth and some through formal means.

The communications minister Fahmi Fadzil “let the cat out of the bag”, when he lost his temper during a regular Tik Tok dialogue he hosts, threatening viewers with police action for posting comments critical of him and the current government.

Two hours into the session the minister divulged that authorities are monitoring social media users. Fahmi went on to say “Don’t get upset with me if there is a call or a radio car outside of your house. We are monitoring, behave yourself.”

Fahmi has used intimidation a number of times against media portals. Back in March, Fahmi threatened to meet with Berita Harian management over criticisms of the pending rise in the overnight policy rate (OPR) at the time.

This has become a common practice of government ministers, through their staff. Editors of news portals are receiving more and more calls asking that particular articles critical of their ministers be taken down. This has forced editors of Malaysian news portals to become very concerning of what news they post, in fear of displeasing authorities.

One editor at a major news portal said that ‘we are now back in the Najib times, when we were intimidated over 1MDB stories we published. If we don’t comply with their requests, there would be consequences.”

New Malaysian Media Council

The Proposed Malaysian Media Council, will be a regulatory mechanism for the media industry, specifically intended to control online news portal. This will prescribe a code of self-censorship within the industry. The MMC will have the power to investigate complaints against media portals. This draft bill will add another layer of regulation over those freelance journalists who are investigative on issues concerning politics and corruption.

The government has also been muzzling the independent media by stealth, through government owned GLCs. When journalists investigate corruption, abuse of power, and landgrabs, it’s the GLCs that serve letters of demand, and summons for civil defamation. These are mostly used as deterrents against further investigation and publishing of new information, as most freelance journalists doing investigative work cannot afford the legal fees involved in defending a civil defamation case.

Defamation actions from GLCs allows politicians to stay at arms-length. These stealth tactics are preventing corruption issues from being exposed across Malaysia.

Stealth censorship: Now common to see these summons issued against activists and news portals with GLCs doing the censorship work for the government.

There are also criminal deformation laws the attorney general can utilize to silence any journalists who get close to the truth. The biggest deterrent is the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012, where a journalist can be detained for up to 28 days, while the police undertake investigations. While detained, those in custody are held in spartan conditions that would break the spirit of most.

SOSMA can be used to intimidate journalists.