Anxiety over ‘censorship’ mounts as Malaysian government faces state poll test

  • Advocates have warned of creeping ‘censorship’ by the government after an opposition-linked news site suffered an unexplained outage

  • The outage comes before state polls, which are seen as a barometer of support for a government that is accused of closing the door on criticism

South China Morning Post

Media freedom advocates in Malaysia have warned of creeping government “censorship” after an opposition-linked news portal suffered an unexplained outage following a report that a minister threatened police action against critics who derided him during a TikTok live event.

The incidents come just weeks before Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s unity government faces its first real test in a clutch of state polls.

Anwar’s government came to power in November promising to sweep away an ulcerous period of corruption and suppressed media freedoms.

Yet just days into his premiership, the government declared an all-out effort to take down provocative posts dealing with the 3Rs – race, religion and royalty – after a divisive November election.

In the run-up to state polls, which are seen as a barometer of support for the government – especially from among the majority Malays, who make up some two-thirds of voters – Anwar’s administration has been accused of closing down room for criticism.

MalaysiaNow’s editor and chief executive Abdar Rahman Koya said the website was inaccessible to sections of local readers from Tuesday afternoon, despite workers having detected no unusual activity on its servers or external cyberattacks.

By Thursday evening, access had been fully restored.

“While we are relieved that the site is accessible again to Malaysians, we will not rest until we find the culprit behind this coincidence affecting several major ISPs,” Abdar Rahman said.

“In the digital world, everything can be tracked, and we will know soon.”

“All of you who participate in my live sessions and make statements like this … you are being monitored by the authorities.

“Don’t get upset with me if there is a call or a radio car [police car] outside of your house. We are monitoring, behave yourself,” Fahmi said during the online session.

Fahmi said on Wednesday that he had not issued any instructions to his ministry to block any news portals, according to broadcaster Astro Awani.

The minister earlier also denied threatening viewers during his TikTok live video, saying he only reminded them against making provocative remarks about race, religion and royalty.

Past governments led by former ruling party Umno – now a key ally in Anwar’s administration – were notorious for their heavy-handed treatment of critical media.

Media rights group Centre for Independent Journalism said it was “greatly alarmed by the recent alleged actions of the government”.

“It infers that we may have a new government but the same tactics are employed to censor and restrict our freedom of expression and media freedom,” the group said.

In 2016, during the tenure of now-disgraced ex-premier Najib Razak, the government blocked access to news portal The Malaysian Insider after it ran a series of stories that raised corruption allegations against him.

The ban eventually led to the news portal’s closure, which its owners The Edge Media Group said was due to commercial considerations.

Najib’s administration also suspended the printing licence of now-defunct weekly newspaper The Heat in 2013, after it published an article about his wife Rosmah Mansor’s extravagant spending habits.

Najib was found guilty in 2020 of corruption linked to a former unit of scandal-tainted state fund 1MDB and is serving a 12-year jail term, while Rosmah is appealing her own corruption conviction.

Addressing the brief outage suffered by MalaysiaNow, independent media rights group Gerakan Media Merdeka said it would be unacceptable for the government to relegate any form of online news or legitimate opinion to the same level as “undesirable” content such as pornography, gambling and violent extremism.

“Any such move – if proven true – would be an indirect form of government censorship on a news outlet and a blatant breach of press freedom,” the group said in a statement on Wednesday.