Malaysia's Internet Conundrum

In August of 1996, when he launched the 50 km-long Multimedia Super Corridor between Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia’s new international airport in an attempt to lure high-tech startups to his country, then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad made a promise to prospective international investors that the Internet would remain forever free from political interference.

It is a promise that successive governments – and belatedly perhaps Mahathir himself – have had trouble keeping or wish had never been made, as exemplified by the raid last week on Malaysiakini, with 300,000 daily readers the biggest of the flock of independent or opposition news sites that have altered Malaysia’s political landscape.

Fifteen policemen showed up at the news organization’s offices in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Petaling Jaya to demand information about a writer who posted a long argument that basically asked why ethnic Malays had to be Muslims, among other things.

That was just the latest in a continuing list of actions against Malaysiakini. Others have included various police threats and DDOS (directed denial of service) attacks, in which hundreds of responses to a story or other item on the site flood servers and clog them up, shutting down the site. Steven Gan, the editor of Malaysiakini, and Premesh Chandran, the business director, have been called to give statements to the police on the site’s funding.

Nor is Malaysiakini alone. Three other news sites – Malaysian Insider, Free Malaysia Today and the Sarawak Report say they have come under varying degrees of harassment. A fourth site, Malaysia Today, is published by Raja Petra Kamarudin from outside the country after he was threatened with criminal libel and sedition charges.

There are plenty more opposition sites as well. With the mainstream media completely in government hands, Malaysia has grown one of the most intensive opposition online communities anywhere.

Now with the country having been gearing up for months for elections scheduled for April next year, the presence of these particular news sites, none of which are pro-government, has become a major preoccupation for the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition. The sites are considered to have played a major role in the 2008 election which ended the Barisan’s 50-year stranglehold on the Parliament, for the first time breaking its two-thirds lock which allowed it to pass legislation at will.

The sites provide the only independent or pro-opposition news in the country. The mainstream papers and television channels are all owned by the major political parties, reporting in Chinese, Tamil, Malay and English languages. The papers, particularly the Malay language ones, provide a steady diet of hagiographic if not outright sycophantic coverage of pro-government politics and do their best to skewer the opposition.

The opposition sites have continued to break a long series of stories that are antithetical to the political aims of the government, often taking particular aim at such figures as Rosmah Mansor, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s wife, whose reputation for outsize spending on jewelry, deserved or not, has become a major point of controversy.

The blogs also carried voluminous materials on the so-called Cowgate scandal, in which the family of Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, the head of the Women’s wing of UMNO, was accused of misusing RM250 million (US$83 million) in funds for a cattle feed lot to pay for condominiums, vacations, a Mercedes–Benz sedan and other items having nothing to do with feeding cattle. A long series of other scandals has continued to dog the government, faithfully reported by the opposition media.

Asia Sentinel’s reporting on a €150 million scandal in which the French government-owned defense contractor DCN allegedly paid massive kickbacks to Malaysian politicians in exchange for picking DCN subsidiaries to supply submarines to the defense ministry has also been given wide play in the country. Asia Sentinel was hit by one DDOS attack which shut the website down for several hours and is regularly attacked by what obviously are paid letter-writers. The stories have also been attacked by pro-goverment bloggers reportedly paid for by political party funds.

The government wasn’t particularly concerned with the blogs until recently, said Jahabar Siddiq, the editor of Malaysian Insider, because the majority of voters read publications or watched television in their own language. But more recently as many as 1 million overseas Malaysians, most of whom deal in English as the lingua franca, also are internet-savvy and read English.

“In the last year, they have started to look at the English language publications,” Siddiq said. “Most of the new voters are educated overseas. They can’t contain what they read.” The government has made a few feints at attempting to control the internet, including amending the Evidence Act to include internet publications, but has backed away under pressure.

Mahathir himself – who published his widely read blog Che Det on the Internet and played a major role in bringing down Abdullah Badawi, the successor he came to loathe, has also publicly questioned whether Internet freedom is a good thing. But mostly the government has confined itself to going after the sites in a variety of ways instead of closing down the news organizations themselves.

“Unlike Malaysiakini, we have so far not had any direct pressure from the government,” said K. Kabilan, the managing editor of Free Malaysia Today. “We have not had any phone calls asking us to stop any critical writings. However we have had the indirect approach. We have had phone calls from people close to the PM, asking us to tone down our writings.

“We have had UMNO MPs sulking and refusing to talk to us, simply because we have been critical. We have had MIC leaders threatening us with legal suits for articles showing corrupt practices. And we have had big players suing us over articles linking them with corruption. There have been police reports lodged against us over our articles too. Pro-Umno bloggers too at times take swipes at us, trying to discredit us.”

A whole corps of pro-government responders has grown up, eager to post pro-government responses to critical stories. Siddiq says he has friends who are making great money posting such responses to stories that run in Malaysian Insider.

“So many of them now, a few of my friends are making good money writing this stuff – even lawyers. They write really good letters. They’ve been around for about a year.”

He has been called in to give statements to the police, he says, “but there have been no raids on us like on Malaysiakini. I have been hassled by the cops, the securities commission, the laws are stiff on that, they put pressure on our advertisers, who tell us if we write things in a certain way, we won’t get advertising.”

Claire Brown, who publishes the Sarawak Report from London, has made it a particular crusade to bring down Abdul Taib Mahmud the chief minister of the state of Sarawak, who has been accused of taking billions of dollars in kickbacks from timber companies while denuding his state of primary forest.

“The harassment of Malaysiakini is unbelievable and my guess is they will try and bring it to a standstill before the election,” Brown said. “It is stupid, because the information is already out and will go through other portals anyway. As for me, I presented a more awkward proposition being located safely out of their jurisdiction in the UK.”

Taib, she said, has hired public relations flacks in the west to attack and defame her and used a whole variety of other tactics, including threats of lawsuits by Taib’s son-in-law if she didn’t retract the entire body of work she has posted.

“But I guess I have more confidence in the British jury system than he does and ignored it - that was well over a year ago!”