KUALA LUMPUR--The nation's vocal political bloggers and commentators are bracing for a government crackdown, even as Malaysia celebrates its 51st anniversary of independence this weekend.
The government ICT regulator Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) earlier this week ordered all 19 of the country's Internet service providers (ISPs) to block the controversial political portal Malaysia Today.
In his blog chedet.com, Malaysia's former prime minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, has hit out at the government for breaking its pledge not to practise Internet censorship.
The prime mover behind the MSC, Dr. Mahathir said the government will lose credibility as well as the respect of its people, when it breaks a promise to the country.
While Malaysia Today's founder Raja Petra Kamaruddin has been at times "quite irresponsible" over his postings, Dr. Mahathir said the judiciary system should be the rightful authority to handle the issue. "Court action had already been taken against [Kamaruddin]. He is not above the law and if he is found guilty, there are already adequate punishment that can be passed."
"But, to break a promise and openly show that you can meddle with the security of the Internet is to expose a degree of oppressive arrogance worthy of a totalitarian state."
According to a report Thursday by online news portal Malaysiakini, the MCMC COO Mohamed Sharil Tarmizi confirmed the commission was behind the site blackout. "It is being blocked because we found that some of the comments on the Web site were insensitive, bordering on incitement," Mohamed Sharil said.
Local news reports indicated users were unable to access Malaysia Today through three major ISPs: TMnet, Maxis and Time. However, a check by ZDNet Asia Thursday evening found that the portal could still be accessed through a mirror site.
The MCMC's move is expected to send shockwaves across the IT sector as it appears the Malaysian government has 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".
Asked if the move to block Malaysia Today went against this guarantee, Mohamed Sharil said the matter was "subject to interpretation".
"We are governed by the Communications and Multimedia Act (1998), which allows us to take preventive measures and advise our license holders [such as ISPs] when a service user may be contravening national laws," he said in the Malaysiakini report.
When contacted, a staff from Mohamed Sharil's office told ZDNet Asia he was not available for comment as he was "in Bali".
Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar said the block was justified as Malaysia Today was publishing offensive content. He told reporters Thursday: "We do not intend to curtail people's freedom or right to express themselves. But when they publish things that are libelous, slanderous or defamatory, it is natural for the MCMC to act."
"Everyone is subject to the law, even Web sites and blogs," Syed Hamid said, adding the commission was only exercising its power in ordering the ISPs to block the Web site.
Broken promise not to censor
Malaysia Today's founder and editor Raja Petra Kamaruddin, called the move a breach of the MSC charter. "The Government has clearly broken its own promise," Raja Petra said in a report by news daily The Star Thursday.
The editor 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.
Tony Pua, opposition member of parliament and economic advisor to the Democratic Action Party (DAP) secretary-general, said the government's move to backtrack on its own guarantee sounded the "death knell" for the MSC.
"As it is, under [Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi] Pak Lah's government, the MSC is already given very little room to grow and very little emphasis on its progress," Pua said in an e-mail interview with ZDNet Asia. "Now, it just [sounded] MSC's death knell and it's doomed for mediocrity."
Regardless of how the government explains the MCMC's directive, he said it all boils down to "censorship with a capital C". "This government has reneged on its pledge not to censor the Internet...[and] does not have any commitment toward freedom of speech. The cyberspace has been of the new frontiers, in which the government has been trying unsuccessfully to control," he said.
"I expect its continued attempts to clamp down on blogs will fail and backfire and the ultimate victims will be the government's credibility as well as its various initiatives, such as the MSC," said Pua, a former technopreneur who sold his IT-services company to become a full-time politician.
Association of the Computer and Multimedia Industry Malaysia (Pikom) Chairman David Wong said the government will now need to spend a lot of effort to convince its population and foreign investors on the "harsh" action taken against the Malaysia Today.
"The government would have to explain exactly what major wrongdoings were committed by the Web site," Wong told ZDNet Asia, when asked if potential foreign investors would lose confidence in the Malaysian government over the apparent backtracking on its guarantee not to censor the Web.
If the government is not able to convince the public and overseas investors that it was necessary to block access to Malaysia Today, he said it would be an uphill task for the government to manage any potential fallout.
In a media statement, Salahuddin Hashim, secretary-general of the opposition People's Justice Party, warned that this marks "the first step in a comprehensive and reprehensible attempt to curb the access of Malaysians to the Internet".
The Web has in the past few years been "the bastion of freedom" for Malaysians seeking alternative views, Salahuddin said.
When contacted, Multimedia Development Corporation (MDeC) was not available for comment.
Lee Ming Keong is a freelance IT writer based in Malaysia.