ISA, sedition charge threats vs webmasters

[Original title: Malaysia threatens to use Internal Security Act, sedition laws vs webmasters]

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) is gravely concerned by Kuala Lumpur’s stated intent to wield Malaysia’s Internal Security Act and Sedition Act to potentially control the flow of information and opinion in Malaysia-based Internet operations.

Last October 4, Malaysia Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was quoted by the newspaper “New Straits Times” as saying his government will look into using the ISA against webmasters who allow irresponsible comments and content to be aired on their sites. Prime Minister Badawi was reacting to a newspaper report that the website “Screenshots” on September 30 had published “views ridiculing Islam”.

Deputy Minister of Internal Security Datuk Noh Omar said he would investigate the person who posted the comment and ponder the use of the Sedition Act against the cyber commentator.

A Malay-language daily, “Berita Harian”, accused Screenshots webmaster Jeff Ooi of “failing to control the forum by allowing an opinion ridiculing Islam to be published”.

In his defense, Ooi said he had already blocked the writer in question from their website after the man ignored e-mails taking him to task on issues of plagiarism and blasphemy.

Beyond the facts of the controversial Screenshots postings, however, SEAPA is concerned that Malaysia may exploit the issue to further restrict the flow of information in the country. The Internet is the most viable medium for independent news and information in Malaysia, a country where print and broadcast journalism is controlled by state ownership, licensing rules, and political intolerance for criticism.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had committed to leaving the Internet space relatively untouched, and the web now thus plays host to a handful of alternative and independent news outlets such as Malaysiakini.com. These new news providers are constantly pushing the boundaries of free expression in Malaysia, testing and exploiting the virtual space that Mahathir had vowed to respect.

“It should be noted that censorship of the Internet was explicitly rejected in the Communications and Multimedia Act 2001,” the CIJ said in a statement.

Now SEAPA and the CIJ are concerned that the Malaysian government has found an excuse to influence web content as well. The organizations are concerned that the very suggestion of using the ISA and sedition laws against a webmaster may have a chilling effect on other content providers.

The ISA allows for detention without trial for up to two years, with a 60-day ‘investigation period’. Crimes against the Sedition Act are punishable by prison terms of up to three years.

In January last year, Malaysian police raided the office of Malaysiakini.com and carted away dozens of computers, after using sedition laws to clamp down on the Internet news provider.

“Wielding the ISA and the Sedition Act against webmasters will create a climate of fear and self-censorhip on the Internet,” SEAPA said in a statement. “This further chokes the already limited options Malaysians have for free, independent, and reliable news and information.”