State aims to control cyberspace

[Malaysia country report to SEAPA’s 2012 Press Freedom Report, Online media is the space to watch]

As Malaysia neared its 13th general elections, scheduled for 2012, there was more active public articulation of views on the government and challenging of long standing political assumptions, most pertinently on national identity in the multi-racial state. The year also saw the country’s first journalist death in the line of duty when Noramfaizul Mohd Nor from the national news agency broadcasting arm, Bernama TV was killed in Somalia in a case of mistaken targeting on 3 September (see box).

The year 2011 was marked by the increased frequency and intensity of politicized debates on race and religion as well as public use of online space to criticize and mock the government. These developments were made more significant by street protests including the iconic Bersih 2.0 on 9 July – a rally by thousands of people of diverse race and affiliation, demanding free and fair elections despite a brutal police crackdown.

There was also strong popular opposition to government attempts at Internet censorship. The Prime Minister pledged to do away with two draconian emergency laws and promised reforms in the area of media, freedom of assembly and detention without trial. But government actions remained questionable and caused concern.

Siege on freedom of assembly

The government clampdown on freedom of assembly with extensive roadblocks, use of water cannons and tear gas, beatings and mass arrests of assembly participants, eclipsed the Prime Minister’s feel-good initiatives based on his “1Malaysia” concept. The irony was that, after promising more civil liberties in the aftermath of the brutal crackdown on the Bersih 2.0 rally for electoral reforms, a new law banning street protest was introduced with Prime Minister Najib himself hailing it as a reform milestone.

In February, police arrested 109 protesters and mounted roadblocks in the capital op9city Kuala Lumpur in a clampdown on a rally by Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf). The group was protesting that a novel taught in secondary school Malay-language literature, Interlok, contained racist depiction of ethnic Indians.

In June, as part of the crackdown on Bersih 2.0, police detained 80 people who were distributing political pamphlets and wearing T-shirts promoting the planned rally as they traveled to publicity events in various towns. Some were later released, but police remanded 30 activists from the Socialist Party of Malaysia in northern Penang state. Of these, 24 were charged for possessing documents related to illegal assembly while the remaining six, including parliamentarian Dr Michael Jeyakumar, were accused of involvement in a communist plot and detained under the Emergency Ordinance. They were held in detention till late October, more than three months after the rally itself on 9 July.

On that day, in a widely condemned operation, police arrested 1,667 people. In one of the most controversial actions during the crackdown, police chased protesters with water cannons to a hospital area and barged into the building to arrest those taking shelter from the chemical-laced water and tear gas. The event produced a social media heroine in 65-year-old retired English teacher Annie Ooi Siew Lan who was photographed drenched in chemical water and reported to have faced tear gas four times during the march. While traditional local media coverage discredited the Bersih 2.0 and its organizers, and gave muted coverage of the rally’s eight demands, foreign and online news outlets as well as social media, provided live reportage of the rally and actively discussed it later. To their credit, social media users exposed with multiple videos, police encroachment on the hospital, which was corroborated by a signed statement from the doctors after initial police denial.

The mainstream Malay language newspaper, Utusan Malaysia described the rally, attended by an estimated 30,000-50,000 people, as a Jewish plot to overthrow the government. The Prime Minister criticized the rally for disrupting traffic and closing businesses. An estimated 11,000 police personnel were deployed to break up Bersih 2.0 and the government harassed journalists including Joseph Sipalan of Malaysiakini.com along with Fazallah Pit, Yusriah Yusof and Ahmad Fadli Mohd Nazari of Suara Keadilan for their reporting of the event. Authorities also blacked out several words and phrases in an article about the rally in the 16 July print version of the Economist.

Challenging power symbols and history

Before the dust had settled on Bersih 2.0, a controversy on the lack of academic freedom, hit the headlines. The spark of it was a controversial raid in August on a Methodist church on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur on suspicion of converting Muslims to Christianity.

When outspoken law lecturer at the International Islamic University Malaysia, Professor Abdul Aziz Bari commented that it was unusual for the state monarch to come to the defence of Selangor Islamic Affairs Department (JAIS), which conducted the raid, he was suspended by the university and subsequently resigned under pressure. University students, in large numbers, protested the university’s action against Abdul Aziz who was criticized by the Malay language media and even received a death threat. Abdul Aziz maintains his criticism was well within the legal framework and even the archaic Sedition Act under which he is being investigated.

Inflammatory language, legal threats or actions have prevented rational discussion on race, religion and the monarchy. Ironically, it is non-state actors in the form of sectarian groups, most notably Perkasa, which have shaped the debates this way. They were frequently given coverage by government-linked media such as Utusan Malaysia. In May, the daily published a front-page report based on unverified blog postings alleging a plot involving politicians from the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) to turn the country into a state ruled by Christians. Perkasa responded immediately with a battle cry against Christians and DAP.

Journalists’ union in the spotlight

The suspension of National Union of Journalists (NUJ) president Mohd Hata Wahari in January by his employer, Utusan Malaysia owned by the main ruling party UMNO, was testimony to the extent of state media control. Mohd Hata was elected NUJ president in September 2010 with a big majority on the platform of pushing for the repeal of the draconian Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA). He spoke out against the law and UMNO, the largest member of the ruling coalition, when the party banned eight online media journalists from covering its annual assembly that year. After three months of internal investigation, the newspaper sacked him on charges of tarnishing its reputation after he criticized its blatantly pro-UMNO editorial policy and blamed it for falling readership in 2010.

The episode revived calls to the public to boycott traditional media. Lim Sue Goan, a senior editor in a widely read Chinese language newspaper, acknowledged the sorry state of Malaysian media in his May column published in the Sin Chew Daily.

“The Los Angeles Times won the Pulitzer Prize gold medal for public service this year for revealing official corruption in Bell. In Malaysia, instead of corruption revealing reports, award-winning reports are general news. Who is responsible for such a situation?”

The year saw several instances of the press and publication law being used to intimidate the media. In August, English daily The Star was issued a show-cause letter and made to apologize twice on the front page for publishing a picture of a non-halal dish in its supplementary on halal eateries during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. The Star suspended supplementary editor Johnni Wong over the incident.

In December, the Home Ministry which regulates the print media, issued a show-cause letter to Chinese language daily Nanyang Siang Pau forpublishing an image that included the word “Allah” in calligraphy as the graphics for a feature story on the Hudud issue (Islamic criminal law). The Ministry said the newspaper had “clearly” alarmed public opinion and jeopardised public interest.

Prime Minister Mohd Najib Razak announced on 16 September that the government would review media censorship laws and suggested that annual re-application for permits would be done away with. But as the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) pointed out, the measure scarcely reduced the Home Ministry’s vast power of controlling the right to publish and disseminate information.

Battle for Internet freedom

Early in the year, the Home Ministry announced it would issue guidelines on “online sedition”, which would include an amendment to the definition of “publication” in the PPPA to include Internet content, blogs or Facebook, in order to bring the law in line with the changing digital media landscape.

The amendments were to be tabled in March 2011 in Parliament, but the government backed down after protests from online news media, opposition members and the NUJ.

However, in December, the government proposed a law requiring registration and certification of IT professionals. According to the bill’s drafter, the Science and Technology Ministry, the proposed Computing Profession Bill sought to establish a board for IT practitioners and companies, where one of the purposes is safeguarding the country’s “Critical National Information Infrastructures” (CNII).

This time, critics came overwhelmingly from the IT industry who pointed out that vague definitions of key terms, such as CNII, “Computing” and “Computing Practitioners” gave immense power to the board to censure and monitor their activities. On 13 December, less than a week the draft bill was publicized, the Ministry said the proposed law might be dropped.

While new laws to regulate the Internet were held off, existing laws were being used to restrict freedom of online expression or to online censor media content with political undertones.

In October, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) questioned online news portal Malaysiakini.com for reporting the incident about law professor Abdul Aziz Bari over his comment on the role of the monarchy.

In September, MCMC ordered broadcasters not to air a music video calling on Malaysians to vote in the general elections. The video was produced by a local musician who made it available online. It featured many local celebrities as well as parliamentarian Tengku Razaleigh, a vocal critic of UMNO, saying that the country “has many problems”. The MCMC said its directive was in accordance with the regulation requiring videos to go through the censorship process before being aired.

In another instance, a blogger had to pay RM300,000 (USD98,650) in damages to a minister after being found guilty of defaming the latter with the title of his post. However, the content of the blog was a news story published in the opposition newspaper alleging that the minister had raped his maid.

In March, the MCMC dropped the case against blogger Irwan Abdul Rahman accused of spreading false news in his satirical post “TNB to Sue WWF over Earth Hour” published in 2010. TNB refers to the national electricity corporation.

Also in March, MCMC officers arrested blogger Mohd Nur Hanief Abdul Jalil without a warrant under the Sedition Act. The blogger had alleged a sexual relationship between a member of the royalty and a celebrity model. Mohd Nur’s house was raided around midnight and his computers were confiscated.

Earlier, in February, opposition parliamentarian Shuhaimi Shafiei was charged under the Sedition Act for a blog post questioning the Sultan’s appointment of a candidate opposed by the Selangor state government as state secretary. He has pleaded not guilty.

Malaysia’s ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, its leaders and mainstream Malay media remained hostile to the online community, both social media users and independent online media. UMNO Senator Ezam Mohd Nor threatened to “burn” Malaysiakini.com and The Malaysian Insider for their coverage of a controversial raid of a church by the Selangor Islamic department, while Utusan Malaysia accused Malaysiakini.com and Professor Abdul Aziz Bari of inciting disaffection towards the monarchy which is a criminal offence.

However, the burgeoning online user community, particularly social media such as Facebook, has created a distinct group able to articulate its disaffection. Attempts by the Prime Minister to woo them, for example, by announcing in April a “1Malaysia Email Project” to provide Malaysians with free email accounts, quickly backfired. Thousands joined a Facebook page to oppose the project and many criticized it online as a waste of public funds. Likewise, more than 150,000 people joined a Facebook page to mock the Tourism Ministry’s spending of RM1.8 million (USD590,000) for its social media marketing campaign, of which an estimated RM100,000 (USD32,900) were spent each to develop two Facebook pages.

Whither reforms?

While the government repealed the Restricted Residence Act and the Banishment Act, it shocked civil society with the passage of the Peaceful Assembly Law in November. The law effectively outlaws street assemblies, lists areas prohibited for assembly, requires an advance notice of 30 days in lieu of a permit for holding an assembly, allows police to impose conditions such as date, time and duration of assembly, forbids participants under the age of 21 and imposes hefty fines for breach of conditions.

The arrest of 13 people without trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in November contrasted sharply with the Prime Minister’s statement about repealing the law. As with previous ISA arrests, the detained people faced terrorism charges with little information released about them and their arrest.

Landmark court decisions

The year, however, saw encouraging developments in the form of High Court decisions related to freedom of expression. In both cases of defamation, the respondent was the Malay language newspaper, Utusan Malaysia. In the first case brought by the Penang state leader from the opposition Democratic Action Party, the court ruled that the newspaper had failed to verify information as part of journalistic rigour. In the second case involving Selangor state assemblyman Khalid Samad from the Islamic party, the court ruled that it had published content with malicious intent when it published a story from a blog post without checking the contents and its sensitivity.

In another landmark decision, a High Court ruled in favor of four National University of Malaysia students – Muhammad Hilman Idham, Woon King Chai, Muhammad Ismail Aminuddin and Azlin Shafina Mohamad Adza – who challenged the constitutional validity of the university’s disciplinary action against them for taking part in a by-election campaign in 2010. The decision effectively makes unconstitutional, provisions in the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) that prohibit undergraduates from participating in political activity.

Although UUCA reform was part of the Prime Minister’s September announcement, university students continued to be threatened with suspension and arrests for joining street protests. Adam Adli Abdul Halim, a student, was suspended for defending academic freedom, and 20 other students who protested in his support were arrested and manhandled.

Outlook

Malaysia’s 13th general election this year follows the acquittal of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on sodomy charges and the massive Bersih 2.0 rally for free and fair polls.

The incumbent government will also be tested on its reform pledges though there is little to indicate there will be substantial improvement in the legal environment to promote fundamental human rights.

On the other hand, social mobilization is expected to increase once elections are announced. Groups representing different interests have begun to use online spaces to encourage voter registration and awareness, expose political corruption and mobilize protest against arbitrary state action.

The mainstream media will be challenged, yet again, to defend its credibility that had taken a beating in recent years.

 


Box: Death sparks inquiry on preparation

 

On the evening of 2 September 2011, five visiting Malaysian journalists were on the way back to their hotel in Mogadishu, Somalia. Their laughter was cut short by gunshots fired at their four-wheel drive vehicle when it was three minutes away from the hotel.

TV3 cameraman Aji Saregar Mazlan shouted that they were being attacked. But fellow passenger, BERNAMA TV cameraman Noramfaizul Mohd Nor, sitting next to him in the back had already collapsed against Aji’s shoulder. A bullet had penetrated Noramfaizul’s lungs and he soon lost consciousness. Paramedics stationed at their hotel were unable to save him. Aji endured only a slight injury on his arm. The other journalists – Melissa Ong of NTV7, Tan Su Lin of Astro Awani, and Khairulanuar Yahaya from BERNAMA – escaped unhurt.

The journalists were part of a 55-member humanitarian mission organized by the ruling party UMNO-affiliated “Putera 1Malaysia Club” to deliver aid to drought-hit and war-torn Somalia. On 26 September, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) admitted that its troops had mistaken the convoy as enemy combatants and fired when the vehicle stopped at the Kilometer Four intersection in the capital city.

Noramfaizul became the first Malaysian journalist to die on duty and his death raised questions about the group’s safety preparation. According to Tan Su Lin, although their vehicle was moving between two others for security, it had no marks to identify it as a media vehicle and they were not provided with bullet-proof vests. They had been briefed about the dangers in Somalia but not trained on war reporting.

The statement by the mission’s medical team chief, Dr Alwi Abdul Rahman, who tried to save Noramfaizul, a personal friend, underlined the extremely dangerous nature of the situation in Somalia and the irony that the team apparently took little precaution. Dr Alwi told BERNAMA that Noramfaizul wouldn’t have survived even with a bullet-proof vest as he was hit by a high-caliber bullet on his vital organs. Those who were provided with bullet-proof vests revealed later that the vests were not sufficiently secure for the situation.

The incident moved the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) to call media employers to provide journalists sent on dangerous assignments with full safety gear, insurance and safety briefings. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has called for a full inquiry into the death.

Noramfaizul was given a hero’s burial and conferred with a posthumous award for gallantry by the state of his origin, Malacca. He is survived by a wife and two children, who were given state compensation for their loss.