Malaysia’s Uneasy Dance with the Web

Are authorities about to start to filter Internet journalism?

On July 31, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, who is rapidly becoming the stormy
petrel of Malaysian politics, made a tough, uncompromising speech to the
annual Malaysian Student leaders Summit in Kuala Lumpur.

The
72-year-old Razaleigh, an elder statesman of the United Malays National
Organization, called for the abolition Malaysia's Internal Security Act,
the Official Secrets Act, the Printing and Publication Act and the
Universities and Colleges Act, which circumscribes the freedom of
expression of students and professors and which, Razaleigh said, "has
done immense harm in dumbing down our universities."

It was a
major speech on an important occasion to Malaysia's future leaders.
Other speakers included members of the judiciary, presidents of bar
councils and many others. (It can be found here in its entirety)

"Billions
have been looted from this country, and Billions more are being
siphoned out as our entire political structure crumbles. Yet we are
gathered here in comfort, in a country that still seems to 'work': Most
of the time," Razaleigh said. "This is due less to good management than
to the extraordinary wealth of this country. You were born into a
country of immense resources, both natural, cultural and social. We have
been wearing down this advantage with mismanagement and corruption.
With lies, tall tales and theft. We have a political class unwilling or
unable to address the central issue of the day because they have grown
fat and comfortable with a system built on lies and theft."

Razaleigh's
speech, controversial as it was, was not mentioned anywhere in the
nation's mainstream press, despite the fact that among other things, he
said that "over the last 25 years, much of the immense wealth generated
by our productive people and our vast resources has been looted."

Despite the fact that no newspapers printed any of the speech, Rejal Arbi, the former editor of the Malay language Berita Harian
who is now a columnist, thought it merited exposure. However, Mior
Kamarulbaid, the editor of the paper, thought otherwise. He spiked
Rejal's column.

Berita Harian is owned by UMNO, which is
increasingly unsettled by Razaleigh's calls to clean out the endemic
corruption in the party. Likewise, The Star, which is owned by the
Malaysian Chinese Association, the second-biggest component of the
Barisan Nasional, the ruling national coalition, didn't carry
Razaleigh's remarks, nor did the New Straits Times, which is also owned
by UMNO. Nor was it carried on the party-owned television stations.

However, it was carried widely on Internet news sites, including being streamed on the independent Malaysiakini television. It was carried verbatim on the Internet-based news portal Malaysian Insider, among other Internet sites.

This
has assumed increasing importance because of an Aug. 16 report in the
independent Internet news site Malaysian Insider that the administration
of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak is evaluating the feasibility of
putting an Internet filter in place to block so-called "undesirable
websites."

According to the report, the Malaysian Communications
and Multimedia Commission commissioned the Malaysian arm of KPMG, the
accounting and advisory firm, to carry out a "'Study on Positive and
Safe Use of the Internet' in early August to evaluate, among others,
"the implementation of Internet Filter at Internet Gateway level" and
"the impact of the various methods to Malaysian Internet users and
Malaysia economy.'"

A year ago, the government backed away from a
similar plan for a filter to block websites it considered undesirable.
After the story became public, Najib denied there was any plan to police
the Internet. Although the rationale cited for such a filter is usually
to keep pornography away from the nation's youth, it can be used to
block undesirable political comment as well. In Thailand today, for
instance, at least 13,000 websites have been blocked by the government,
ostensibly to block unfavorable comment about the country's monarchy.
But in fact, it is being used extensively to block political comment as
well.

It isn't clear what the KPMG study will be used for by the
government. But when Internet journalism was just getting started in the
late stages of the reign of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, the
government took a decision not to place the same kinds of controls on
websites that it maintains for the print media, which are onerous
indeed.

The Printing and Presses Act, passed in 1984, has been
used repeatedly against such publications as The Rocket, the vehicle of
the opposition Democratic Party, and others. Human Rights Watch reported
from New York in July that "the government has effectively suspended indefinitely publication of Suara Keadilan, the paper of the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat" and severely circumscribed the circulation of Harakah, published by the opposition Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS.

As
a result of the fact that political parties control the mainstream
media, the Internet in Malaysia has come alive, not just with opposition
blogs and comment about the government, but with some solid – and some
not so solid – journalism. But backing away from total internet freedom
today is a difficult thing for any government to do and would generate
considerable embarrassment, if not public outrage. In Malaysia, the
Internet is broadly regarded as having played a major role in 2008
national elections that cost the Barisan Nasional its two-thirds
majority in the parliament for the first time in the 50-year history of
the country and delivered several states into the hands of the
opposition.

More lately, the Internet has carried extensive and
embarrassing reports by The Sarawak Report, a Sarawak-based NGO, of the
astonishing international holdings of the chief minister, Abdul Taib
Mahmud, in Canada, the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom,
which the NGO claims were built on the ravaging of Sarawak's vast
natural resources, particularly timber. Not a word of Taib's holdings
has been carried in Malaysia's press.

"We must have freedom as
guaranteed under our Constitution," Razaleigh told the student leaders.
"Freedom to assemble, associate, speak, write, move. This is basic. Even
on matters of race and even on religious matters we should be able to
speak freely, and we shall educate each other."

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