Malaysia Broadens Media Crackdown As Political Scandal Worsens

By Mong Palatino
The Diplomat
March 02, 2016

Internet freedom suffers as Najib’s embattled government tries to fight off the deepening 1MDB scandal.

Since last month, the Malaysian government has blocked three news websites and three socio-political blogs. Meanwhile, the police have threatened Internet users who will share satirical clown memes of Prime Minister Najib Razak.

These reports are troubling and somewhat ironic considering the fact that the government’s Multimedia Super Corridor program supposedly guarantees Internet freedom. Yet those who are familiar with the corruption scandal involving Najib and its massive political impact will immediately recognize these acts as a desperate attempt to silence critical voices that can mobilize public opinion against the ruling party.

Despite being cleared of committing any wrongdoing by the attorney general, Najib is still hounded by accusations that he received illegal fund transfers from 1MDB, a state-run investment firm. Najib admitted that he has $600 million in his personal bank accounts but he claimed the money was a political donation from a royal family in the Middle East. The scandal sparked intense protests across Malaysia and some of Najib’s allies even called for his resignation. Though Najib remains the head of the ruling coalition, his credibility has been tainted.

It would not be a stretch to suggest that the suspension of some newspapers last year and the recent censoring of news websites and blogs are part of the machinations of Najib’s faction to stop the further spread of information concerning the corruption scandal.

Both the Medium and Asia Sentinel news websites were blocked in Malaysia for reposting an article from Sarawak Report about the graft charges against Najib. Meanwhile, The Malaysian Insider was banned last week for allegedly publishing an ‘unverified’ report about the corruption probe involving the prime minister. According to the Center for Independent Journalism, the blogs OutSyed The Box, Din Turtle and Minaq Jingo Fotopages were blocked for being critical of the government.

Even social media users were targeted by authorities. Earlier this month, the police warned an activist graphic artist that he is already being monitored for posting a tweet containing a clown image of Najib. The artist is campaigning for the repeal of the archaic Sedition Act, which continues to be used by the government to harass opposition leaders and dissenters. The threat backfired because the artist gained many supporters and Najib’s clown memes were widely shared on various social media pages. The hashtag #kitasemuapenghasut, which means “we are all seditious” in the local Malay language, became a popular rallying call.

The decision of the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission to order the blocking of several websites despite the absence of a court intervention could inspire media groups to revive the campaign for the amendment of the Communications and Multimedia Act of 1998. Parliament is scheduled to review this law next month. Some analysts think it is about time to clip the broad powers of the media agency, which acts as juror and executioner in enforcing the law.

But it’s not just the law that needs some tweaking; the views of leaders about the role of Internet in society needs to be understood as well.

A day after the blocking of The Malaysian Insider, Najib wrote on his blog about maximizing the cyberspace for the ‘greater good.’

“Keyboard warriors, cyber troopers, and even news portals have made the online world their ‘playground’, constructing their own version of ‘reality’ with click bait headlines that serve their own agendas. This is an unhealthy practice of journalism,” he wrote.

Was he referring to the blocked news websites that published reports about the 1MDB corruption issue?

“The battle of perception will be a continuous one. The internet is an open space for the voices of the people. But it is up to us to stay true to the path of moderation and not fall prey to misconstrued agenda by irresponsible users,” he added.

Najib is certainly right in reminding his readers that the Internet is “a powerful tool that can both shape and dismantle a society.”

Perhaps someone should tell the tech-savvy leader that the Internet can also expose terrible secrets of corrupt politicians and oppressive governments. And even if Internet regulation is necessary in some instances, Internet censorship is never acceptable especially if the aim is to hide the truth and prevent the people from speaking about it. After all, isn’t the search for truth part of the so-called greater good that Najib referred to?

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