KUALA LUMPUR--The Malaysian government Thursday lifted its controversial directive to block access to political portal Malaysia Today but on Friday, police detained the Web site's founder and editor Raja Petra Kamaruddin under the country's internal security laws.
Energy, Water and Communications Minister Shaziman Abu Mansor, confirmed Thursday the Cabinet made the decision on Wednesday to rescind the order. He told reporters at his office in Putrajaya that the move was aimed at encouraging the people to "continue using the Internet as a means to disseminate information".
Malaysia's infocomm technology (ICT) regulator Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) last week ordered all 19 of Malaysia's Internet service providers (ISPs) to block the Malaysia Today Web site.
The minister denied Thursday that the government had caved in under pressure from various groups including former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad who had slammed the government's move to block access to the highly popular Malaysia Today.
Shaziman also said a committee comprising representatives of the MCMC, police, Attorney-General's Chambers and the Home Ministry would be set up to monitor Web sites, especially those with excessive, seditious and racially sensitive content.
Marina Lee Abdullah, the wife of controversial blogger Raja Petra, confirmed Friday he had been detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) at their home at 1.10pm, according to a report by online news portal Malaysiakini. The Malaysia Today Web site also ran a blurb confirming his detention.
Yesterday, the 58-year-old Raja Petra, popularly known as RPK, had raised questions about the government's removal of the ban. "I'm always suspicious of their (the government's) next move. There is always a hidden agenda," he said prophetically in an interview with Malaysiakini.
He is already facing sedition and defamation charges after posting reports that linked Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife to the murder of a Mongolian woman. On Sep. 6, Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar had warned that Raja Petra could be charged under the ISA for comments allegedly insulting Islam and Prophet Muhammad.
Following the initial euphoria over the lifting of the ban on Malaysia Today, the arrest of the iconic Raja Petra shocked bloggers and opposition leaders.
Opposition People's Justice Party (PKR) vice president R. Sivarasa, said the public had been "hoodwinked" by the government.
"Yesterday, bloggers and the people were welcoming the rescinding of the ban. In fact, I was telling people that the Barisan Nasional (BN) government had finally realized the folly of their action in banning Web sites," Sivarasa told ZDNet Asia in a telephone interview.
"However, it is now obvious the government was already planning to arrest Raja Petra under the ISA. This is not only deceptive, it is also cruel," he added.
Sivarasa said while Raja Petra was the physical victim, the real victim in this affair was freedom of speech in Malaysia.
"The government doesn't seem to understand the importance of public discussion on issues affecting the country and the people," he said.
Sivarasa said the government should charge Raja Petra in court instead of detaining him under the ISA which allows for detention without trial. Human rights groups and the opposition have called for the abolishment of the ISA, which provides for renewable two-year periods of detention without trial and is normally used against suspected terrorists and individuals deemed a threat to national security.
The opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) condemned the arrest of Raja Petra and said the move "smacks of desperation" by the BN government.
Tony Pua, opposition member of parliament and economic advisor to the DAP secretary-general, said: "The government is flip-flopping and is seen as a headless chicken. They realized they did a stupid thing by banning Malaysia Today, and now they are compounding it by trying to 'neutralize' Raja Petra under the ISA."
Pua reckoned that the action Raja Petra signaled the start of a crackdown not only on bloggers and Web site operators, but also on those deemed a threat to the ruling elite.
The Home Ministry today directed three newspapers--English daily The Sun, Chinese newspaper Sin Chew Daily and PKR's party organ Suara Keadilan--to show cause on why action should not be taken against them over their news coverage on a number of political issues.
Last week's move to ban the anti-government Web site had sent shockwaves across the IT sector as the Malaysian government was seen to have broken its promise not to censor the Internet--a commitment it first made when the nation launched its Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) ICT strategy in 1996. Under the MSC Malaysia 10 Point Bill of Guarantees, the government pledges to "ensure no Internet censorship".
The move to censor the Internet had drawn widespread criticisms from political parties, bloggers and industry players who argued the government's back-tracking on its no-censorship guarantee sounded the death knell for the MSC. The move was also seen as extremely naive and ineffective as shortly after the original Web site address was blocked, Malaysia Today was up and running on a mirror site hosted outside of Malaysia.
"Censorship on the Internet goes totally against the grain of the guarantee provided by the MSC Bill of Guarantees and it makes us look foolish to the rest of the world," said a senior executive working in the ICT sector.
"Pulling back on a main item of guarantee, made us look inconsistent and will make foreign companies wonder what other provisions of the Bill of Guarantees will be breached when it comes to political expediency for the government," said the executive on condition of anonymity.
Asked if the arrest of Raja Petra meant greater fallout on the MSC, DAP's Pua said the issue has escalated "way beyond the MSC. The damage resulting from the government's actions is to the country itself. It will take a long time to undo the damage".
Edwin Yapp contributed to this article.
Lee Min Keong and Edwin Yapp are freelance IT writers based in Malaysia.