Bloggers crackdown may hurt Malaysia

Any strong government action against bloggers can negatively impact country's image and discourage foreign investments in Malaysia, say observers.
Written by Lee Min Keong, Contributor

MALAYSIA--The recent spate of threats and actions by government leaders to shackle bloggers is damaging Malaysia's reputation, and may put off potential investors from investing in the country's Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) initiative.

Tony Pua, economic advisor to the secretary general of opposition party, the Democratic Action Party (DAP), described the frenzy among certain government leaders calling for bloggers to receive severe punishment as embarrassing for Malaysia.

The former Malaysian CEO and founder of SESDAQ-listed Cyber Village, said in an e-mail interview that the government and Umno leaders are paranoid about local bloggers.

"While some officials have derided blog viewership as low, it is difficult for many to tolerate [the fact] that embarrassing information about [the country's] leaders are left permanently in cyberspace," Pua told ZDNet Asia. "Unlike the traditional newspapers, articles in blogs are like scars which refuse to heal."

Pua believes that many government ministers are "extremely queasy" over the fact that the MSC Bill of Guarantees protects against censorship of the Internet.

And even as Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak recently gave an assurance that the government has not made a decision to clamp down on bloggers, his Umno (United Malays National Organisation) members were lodging police reports against Web site owners and calling for bloggers to be punished severely. Umno is the country's largest political party.

Indeed, there has been a slew of charges brought against bloggers in the country this year.

Blogger Raja Petra Kamaruddin was summoned by the police in late-July and grilled for eight hours over comments posted on his blog Malaysia Today , following a complaint lodged by a senior Umno leader.

Raja's brush with the police follows the arrest of another blogger Nathaniel Tan, who is an information bureau staff with political party Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), which means People's Justice Party in Malay.

Tan, 26, was remanded to facilitate investigations under the Official Secrets Act over documents linked to Deputy Internal Security Minister Johari Baharom's alleged involvement in corruption. He has since been released. Tan is a Harvard University alumnus and an aide to PKR Advisor Anwar Ibrahim, who was Malaysia's former deputy prime minister.

Early this year, popular bloggers Jeff Ooi and Ahirudin Attan were sued by the government-linked New Straits Times Press (NSTP). Ooi has since entered the realm of politics and joined the DAP.

The disconnect between top government leaders who proclaim the Internet will not be censored, and zealous party leaders who feel otherwise, has put Malaysia's aim to be an international ICT hub in the balance. The negative publicity generated by the charges against the bloggers has also caused unease among both sides of the political divide.

Commenting on Tan's arrest and the calls for the government to take action against Malaysia Today , Penang State Executive Councilor Dr Toh Kin Woon said the case "reflects the growing trend toward stifling dissent in our country".

"Despite earlier promises of allowing freedom of the electronic media as part of the effort to promote the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC), the government has reneged on these promises by suppressing blog sites deemed to air views critical of the government," wrote Toh in his article published on local news site Malaysiakini.

Malaysians want a nation that allows "a great deal of space for the exercise of political and civil rights, of which the right to start a Web site or blog, even if this is critical of the government, is one", he said.

Toh's forthright views are significant because he is a high-ranking official in Gerakan, a major component party of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.

Ramon Navaratnam, president of Transparency International Malaysia (TI-M), said Malaysia had matured and the authorities should treat the people accordingly. TI-M describes itself as an independent non-partisan organization that aims to promote a corruption-free public and private sectors.

Navaratnam was quoted in a local daily, in which he warned that it would be "retrogressive to try and control the Internet".

"We have to work toward a more free and independent media and society," he said, adding that if the government had made a commitment not to censor the Internet under the MSC Bill of Guarantees, then it must adhere to its pledge. The Bill outlines various proponents the Malaysian government said it would observe in order to ensure the Internet will not be censored.

"If the government puts a blogger behind bars, the true test would be: What do the majority of the people think?" he questioned. "The government has to listen to the people."

Pua, however, noted that any move to silence Malaysia's blogging community is unlikely to be the main factor hampering the growth and prospects of the country's MSC initiative.

An Oxford University graduate in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, Pua explained: "There are many other more critical reasons why IT-based investors [would be] deterred from investing in Malaysia, for example, the limitation of quality skilled labor, cumbersome restrictions and the country's overall economic climate."

However, the DAP's Pua pointed out that any strong action taken against the bloggers will add to the negative impressions foreigners may have about Malaysia. This will not only discourage foreign investments, but also affect the arrival of tourist dollars, he said.

Lee Min Keong is a freelance IT writer based in Malaysia.

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