KUALA LUMPUR--Malaysia's move to charge eight people for criticizing a state ruler online has drawn the ire of Amnesty International and local media watchdogs. Ironically, the charge is under a multimedia law which guards against Internet censorship.
The unprecedented action has been characterized as yet another major misstep by the authorities seeking to rein in the country's vocal anti-establishment bloggers and online commentators.
Critics claim the move is a blow to the government's long-standing policy of not censoring the Internet, a guarantee enshrined in the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (CMA) under which the eight were charged.
That guarantee was given by the government of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad when Malaysia's Silicon Valley, the Multimedia Super Corridor, was launched in the mid-1990s. One of the CMA's objectives is to "establish Malaysia as a major global center and hub for communications and multimedia information and content services".
The eight people were charged under the CMA for insulting Perak state's royalty. Section 233(1) of the CMA is broadly worded to penalize the "improper use of facilities or network service, etc". It is believed this is the first time the law has been used to charge people for comments posted online. The offence carries a maximum jail term of one year and/or a fine of up to 50,000 ringgit (US$13,600). One of those charged pleaded guilty and was fined 10,000 ringgit (US$2,700) while the others claimed trial.
Those charged are believed to have criticized the Sultan of Perak in his Web site's guestbook during the aftermath of a political crisis in the state. Sultan Azlan Shah had controversially removed the Pakatan Rakyat chief minister and consented to the federal ruling coalition Barisan Nasional to set up the new Perak government.
Amnesty International called on Malaysia's government to drop all charges against those nabbed in the nationwide swoop over the past week.
'Serious blow to freedom'
Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific director, said in a statement: "This development is a serious blow to freedom of expression in Malaysia and has set a very dangerous precedent for people wishing to express their views on the Internet."
Amnesty International said the use of the CMA against those charged had violated the stated objective of the Act, which says it would not be used to censor the Internet. Section 3(3) of the Act states that nothing in the Act "shall be construed as permitting the censorship of the Internet".
Zarifi said: "The Internet was one of the few venues available for Malaysians to express their views relatively freely and now it looks like the government will extend its restrictions on free press to the Web. For a country that claims to be on the cutting edge of communications technology, this is a very troubling step backward."
Meanwhile, local media watchdogs the Centre of Independent Journalism (CIJ) and the Writers Alliance for Media Independence (Wami) said the use of the CMA violates the Act's stated promise it would not be used to censor the Internet.
"CIJ and Wami are also worried that this might be the start of a clampdown on online expression and the erosion of the right to discuss the role of the Malaysian royal families," the organizations said in a statement.
"CIJ and Wami are deeply concerned that a precedent has been set for online censorship using the same law that is said to protect the free flow of information online. It goes against Malaysia's commitment of no internet censorship legislated in section 3(3) of CMA and in the Multimedia Bill of Guarantees.
"The violation of the promise is a sign that the government, at the brink of the impending change in prime minister-ship, is getting more authoritarian," said CIJ executive director Gayathry Venkiteswaran and Wami chairperson Wong Chin Huat in the statement.
CIJ and Wami called for all charges to be dropped and for no further action to be taken against the online commentators, the statement added.
Last August, the country's ICT regulator, Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), ordered all of the country's Internet service providers (ISPs) to block the controversial political portal Malaysia Today. The order has since been rescinded.
Like it is now, the government then, was lambasted by various groups for turning back on its promise not to censor the Internet.
Lee Min Keong is a freelance IT writer based in Malaysia.