MALAYSIA--Defamation suits slapped on two popular Malaysian bloggers by the government-linked New Straits Times Press (NSTP) have galvanized the country's bloggers into action. But, a legal expert warns that bloggers are just as accountable as print journalists for defamatory remarks.
Local bloggers in January initiated an online campaign, dubbed Bloggers United, to show their support for the two Malaysian bloggers. They are also calling for a boycott of the New Straits Times newspaper, where a number of disgruntled Netizens said they have canceled their subscriptions to the country's second largest English daily.
The NSTP and several senior executives filed defamation suits in January against bloggers Jeff Ooi and Ahirudin Attan, or more popularly known as Rocky, over various postings on their high profile blogs. Their comments have attracted a following among Malaysians disillusioned with the country's mainstream newspapers, which they perceive to be pro-government. Malaysia is estimated to have about 10 million Internet users.
Some local bloggers have reportedly set up a fund to assist Ooi and Rocky, a former editor with the NSTP, with their legal fees. Speaking recently at a press conference held by Malaysia's Center of Independent Journalism (CIJ), Ooi said: "Proceeds [from the fund] will not only be used to protect bloggers against [law] suits, but also to provide training workshops in the field of investigative journalism for bloggers."
Fast facts on blogger suits
In his blog, Rocky also wrote that "quite a few lawyers" have contacted him with offers "to defend me, pro bono".
While the suits have spurred a lively debate about the freedom to blog, they also serve as a reminder to Malaysian bloggers that they are as exposed--as print journalists--to legal and law enforcement action, if they pass comments that can be deemed defamatory.
In an interview with ZDNet Asia, Associate Professor Abu Bakar Munir, a law lecturer with the University of Malaya, said it was a fallacy for bloggers to assume they are somehow more protected from such action.
"There are no special safeguards for bloggers. The law doesn't differentiate between the online and offline world," Abu Bakar said. Local bloggers may potentially face the prospect of being saddled with multi-million ringgit damages if they lose their defamation cases, he said.
"It also doesn't matter if your blog is hosted on a server outside of Malaysia. As long as bloggers can be identified, they can be hauled up," he warned. Abu Bakar, who specializes in ICT law, said action could be taken against bloggers through a raft of defamation, sedition, criminal and internal security laws.
The lawsuits have also placed intense scrutiny on the Malaysian government's commitment not to censor the Internet, a pledge that was given 10 years ago when the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) was unveiled.
A non-profit organization and a local media watchdog, the CIJ said the defamation suits brought against the bloggers curtail freedom of expression and information. The landmark case, often described as "David versus Goliath" or "Old Media versus New Media", is believed to be the first time legal action has been taken against bloggers in Malaysia. The New Straits Times is part of Media Prima, Malaysia's most influential press group which was once owned by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the largest political party in the country.
Asked about the court case, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was reported to say: "Bloggers must be responsible for what they write on the Internet as there are laws on defamation and sedition."
Just weeks before the NSTP lawsuits, a junior minister called for the passing of tougher cyber laws to control those who misuse the Internet. Last December, Deputy Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Kong Cho Ha, said: "We need to have stricter cyber laws to prevent these bloggers from disseminating disharmony, chaos, seditious material and lies." Cho also advocated a move to register bloggers.
However, Abu Bakar said such a move could be construed as "indirect censorship of the Internet" by the government. "Existing laws are more than sufficient to deal with errant bloggers. There's no necessity to enact 'tough cyberlaws' as this will negatively impact Malaysia's goal to be an international ICT hub," he said.
International press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders has expressed concern over any plans by the Malaysian government to control the electronic media. "Malaysian bloggers currently enjoy an outspokenness denied to journalists in the traditional media," said the France-based body, adding that online users should not be pushed into self-censorship. It also urged the NSTP to drop the lawsuits.
Lee Min Keong is a freelance IT writer based in Malaysia.