Malaysia Ignites an Internet Firestorm

Malaysia's government Wednesday appeared to be backing rapidly away – for now at least – from a statement by Home Ministry Secretary General Mahmood Adam that that the country's Printing Presses and Publications Act, which requires all publications to be licensed by the government, will be amended to include online publications.

Mahmood's statement, which appeared in the government news service Bernama, was met with an uproar from the country's opposition politicians and online press. Lim Kit Siang, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party told local media that instead of widening the net of the already controversial act, which requires all news publications to be licensed by the government, the government needed to loosen restrictions. Even some members of the United Malays National Organization, the leading ethnic political party, condemned the move. Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin called it "ridiculous. We should be moving towards greater freedom," he said.

The National Union of Journalists condemned the proposal as well.

Then, on Wednesday afternoon, two senior government ministers told reporters the government at this time is far from ready to amend the act, saying nobody has decided what, if any, changes will be made.

"Nothing has been finalized," Home Affairs Minister Hishamuddin Hussein told reporters after the first meeting of the Committee on Strengthening Government Communications at Parliament House. "With the committee in place, whatever views will first be brought before the committee." The proposed amendments, he said, weren't discussed at the meeting.

Mohamad Nazri Aziz, a minister in the Prime Minister's Department, also held a press conference to tell reporters that the government has no plans to implement introduce any new controls on online media content, saying existing sedition and libel laws already govern the Internet, as does the Printing Presses and Publications Act. The government, he said, was merely only preparing special guidelines to help the public better understand the press laws on the books.

The government, he said, has a policy not to censor the Internet unless it involves national security. Nazri, however, also said the Printing Presses and Publications Act already applies to the Internet. It is unclear whether the government might use the act to force online publications to obtain government licenses.

All of Malaysia's mainstream media are owned by the country's political parties. While the opposition parties have their own publications, they cannot be circulated generally. The Internet has thus fostered an explosion of online publications and blogs critical of the government, led by Malaysia Today, edited by Raja Petra Kamarudin, who fled the country last year in advance of sedition and criminal libel charges. He now edits the publication from London.

Two other Internet sites, Malaysiakini and Malaysian Insider, have gained wide readership and considerable respect as independent and reliable news organizations. The blogs and online news portals are considered to have played an important role in a major pickup for opposition political parties in 2008 national elections.

"Many had expected Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak to be more stringent in enforcing controls a la Dr Mahathir Mohamad over the media," wrote Steven Gan, Malaysiakini's editor-in-chief. "Few expected that he would be worse than Mahathir."

Mahathir, when he ordered the creation in 1996 of the so-called Multimedia Super Corridor in an effort to emulate California's Silicon Valley, created a 10-point "Bill of Guarantees" ensuring that the Internet would stay uncensored, and in fact after his retirement created his own blog, Che Det, which has become immensely popular and which he has regularly used to beat the government around the ears when he feels it is going in the wrong direction. He is considered to have played a major role in driving his anointed successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, from the premiership following the disastrous 2008 elections.

Gan, in a telephone interview Wednesday night, said it isn't certain whether the government has given in so easily. Although the Hishamuddin and Nazri said the printing act governs the internet, the word "internet" is never uttered in the document, which states that "No person shall keep for use or use a printing press unless he has been granted a licence…For the purpose of this section "printing press" means the machine, equipment or article for printing, copying or reproducing any document… The Minister may in his absolute discretion grant to any person a licence to keep for use or use a printing press for such period as may be specified in the licence and he may in his absolute discretion refuse any application for such licence or may at any time revoke or suspend such licence for any period he considers desirable."

Gan said he is fearful that the government may follow Singapore's Internet restrictions, proposed two weeks ago, which would force a political website, the Online Citizen, to declare itself a political organization, which would bar its team of volunteers from writing, reporting, analyzing or commenting on elections, which are expected to be called in March.

(The government) wants to table this bill in March," Gan said. "That means they are pretty well along already."

The announcement by the Home Ministry follows a statement on Jan. 13 by Hishamuddin that the federal government would write guidelines to define "online sedition," a move which critics described as an overt attempt at cyberspace censorship.

"On a whole, officers from the home ministry, PM's department and the information ministry have agreed on the contents of the guidelines," Hishammuddin said in a prepared statement, adding that seditious items are expected to include "malicious news," pornography, false information and other cyber crimes.

National Union of Journalists President Hata Wahari, who was suspended from his job last week as a senior reporter for the Malay-language daily Utusan Malaysia for making public statements that the newspaper was biased in favour of the ruling national coalition, described the alleged attempts to muzzle the Internet as "a step backward" that would turn Malaysia into an "outdated" country in terms of free flow of information.

"The NUJ has (long demanded) that the Home Ministry should amend the Act to provide print publications the space to operate with more freedom, and to eliminate the need to renew the printing and publishing permits every year," he said in a statement.