Malaysia Ponders How to Handle its Bloggers

malay-media

Haris Ibrahim walked across Kuala Lumpur’s Merdeka Square on a clear night and stopped at a stage in front of the Moroccan-style Sultan Abdul Samad building. The 49-year-old lawyer, who also runs the blog The People’s Parliament, took out a candle and lit it in solidarity with the first Malaysian blogger to be charged for sedition, Raja Petra Kamarudin of the Web site Malaysia Today.

That was a mistake. The district police chief walked up to him and asked, "What are you doing here?" He replied, "Holding a candle." When the police chief told him to leave, Haris demanded to know why. In the end, Haris was told that he was under arrest and escorted to the police station for questioning, later to be released.

Haris is the latest to face a brush with the law as the Malaysian government, accustomed to a captive mainstream media owned by compliant allies and political parties, grows increasingly irritated with dissent. Earlier this week, R Nadeswaran, deputy editor of the independent newspaper the Sun, and his colleague, Terence Fernandez, were questioned by the police for an article that alleged that RM9.9 million (US$2.9 million) was illegally transferred out of the Selangor state executive councilors' wives association by the wife of the previous chief minister, Mohammad Khir Toyo.

Raja Petra, however, whose blog sometimes gets a million hits a day, is by far the most publicized. He was charged with seeking to overthrow the government on Tuesday after police raided his home and confiscated his laptop and other computer equipment. He was questioned at the Commercial Crimes Investigation headquarters over an inflammatory article carried on Malaysia Today that sought to implicate Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak and his wife in the murder of Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibuu in October 2006. Defiant, Raja Petra initially refused to post bail and chose jail till the court hearing set for October. He then refused to see his wife and went on a hunger strike that was later abandoned.

Raja Petra's arrest has sparked a wave of public sympathy and solidarity among bloggers. A large crowd, including prominent opposition politicians like Lim Kit Siang of the Democratic Action Party and Wan Azizah of the People's Justice Party, showed up in court. On Wednesday, supporters gathered outside the jail located on the fringe of Kuala Lumpur. The following day, about 50 bloggers and friends who sought to hold the candlelight vigil were stopped by police who had condoned off the main entrances to Merdeka Square. About 100 policemen guarded the empty square. Haris and two others were detained briefly and subsequently released.

The actions appear to reflect a growing realization that the Internet is playing a far larger role as an independent news source in spreading dissent than the government originally anticipated. Top officials of the Barisan Nasional once scoffed at the power of the new medium but that changed after the ruling coalition of ethnic political parties lost the two-thirds parliamentary majority it has held since independence in 1957. The government has been leaving its hands off the Internet, largely because of a desire to turn Malaysia into a high-tech investment hub. But surveys have shown that more people are turning to the Internet for news and that online media is perceived as more credible than traditional media; the first of the Malaysian news sites, Malaysiakini.com, has won a worldwide reputation since it was launched on a shoestring nearly a decade ago.

In addition to the apparent crackdown by police, others have sought to cope with the new media environment. The Barisan has reacted by calling for members of the ruling political parties to start their own blogs in an attempt to explain government actions to their constituents. Even the venerable Mahathir Mohamad, the former prime minister who gave up power in 2002, has started his own blog called Chedet, using his onetime pen name as a journalist, in which he has continued his impassioned attacks on the government of his successor, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

Some Barisan leaders also have sought to institute media reforms. The new Information Minister, Shabery Chik, offered an olive branch to a small group of bloggers who attacked Abdullah Badawi and Najib. Chik has met with bloggers and started a new 20-minute segment every Sunday for bloggers on the national broadcasting station, Radio Television Malaysia, in contrast to the previous minister, Zainuddin Maidin, who locked horns with bloggers and even the government-controlled media.

Other signs of a freer media have included reviewing annual licence renewals for newspapers required under the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) and granting a printing permit to an opposition newspaper that was previously restricted to members. At the same time, however, the government is seeking to revoke the publishing license of The Herald, a Catholic newspaper in Kuala Lumpur, for using the word “Allah” as a synonym for “God.” On May 4, a high court judge ruled that the Herald’s suit against the government could proceed. The Herald publishes in English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil. The government insists that its use of “Allah,” an Arabic word widely used in many cultures to denote God, is an attempt by Christians to confuse ethnic Malays into converting.

On International Press Freedom Day, which was celebrated on May 3, a day before the police raided Raja Petra's house, newspaper editors reportedly asked for the eventual abolishment of the PPPA. Wong Chun Wai, group chief editor of the largest English-language daily, the Star, which is owned by the pro-government Malaysia Chinese Association, has asked for the annual renewal to be waived. "Its relevance should be questioned when one does not need a permit to start a blog or website. We must change with the times. There are enough laws to deal with the media,” he reportedly said.

Meanwhile, Susan Loone, a blogger and former journalist, is dubious about any real change under Badawi. "The recent arrest of Raja Petra Kamaruddin looks bad on the government who tried to show it was serious in reforming itself, but alas, the truth is out. Having a new information minister who seemed to understand bloggers in the beginning and seeing a trend of Barisan politicians becoming bloggers belies the fact that the authorities still view bloggers suspiciously," she said.