M'sia probe over Web content raises global ire

International media watchdogs and human rights groups call for Malaysian government to stop "harassment" of local political news site, Malaysiakini.
Written by Lee Min Keong, Contributor

KUALA LUMPUR--International media watchdogs and human rights groups are up in arms over attempts by the country's ICT regulator to "harass" a local political news site into censorship.

The Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) had launched an investigation early this month after Malaysiakini carried two video clips which local authorities deemed offensive.

The Web site refused to comply with a Sep. 3 order issued by the MCMC to remove a video showing angry protesters in Selangor state, marching with a severed cow's head to oppose the building of a Hindu temple, and another in which the home minister described the protesters' actions as legal.

The MCMC in a letter stated that the display of both videos "is an offence under Section 211/233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act", which prohibits content that is "indecent, obscene, false, menacing or offensive in character with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass another person". Offenders face a fine of up to 50,000 ringgit (US$14,542) or up to a year in prison.

When contacted, a senior MCMC official confirmed its probe on Malaysiakini is almost complete. "The investigation papers will be submitted soon to the Attorney-General for further consideration," said the spokesperson, who declined to respond to statements made by global and regional media and human rights groups condemning the government's move.

Malaysiakini's co-founder and editor-in-chief, Steven Gan, questioned the MCMC's use of the CMA and cited Section 3 of the document, which stated: "Nothing in this Act shall be construed as permitting the censorship of the Internet."

"So to use the CMA against us would be a clear abuse of the law as [the Act] is not meant to be used in such a manner," Gan said in a phone interview with ZDNet Asia.

However, he expects Malaysiakini to be charged--likely under the CMA--given the "speed and extent of the investigations" by the MCMC.

"[If that happens], we will definitely be defending ourselves," he said. Gan maintains that the two video clips were not offensive, noting that Malaysiakini's intention was to "get the news out" and not to stir religious hatred.

Regional, global lobbyists urge end to probe
New York-based Human Rights Watch last week said the Malaysian government should drop its order for the news portal to remove the videos.

"The government's investigation of Malaysiakini is nothing short of media harassment and it needs to stop," Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in on the global human rights organization's Web site. "Malaysians are entitled to know all sides of a story. It is not up to the government to approve what news is fit to air, print, or post. The government wants to make the problem disappear by taking the videos off the Internet, but Malaysians have a right to see for themselves what happened and hear what was said--the government shouldn't be suppressing this information."

Reporters Without Borders (RWB) also pledged its support for Malaysiakini, noting that the site is "right to resist the censorship" imposed by the Malaysian government.

"The authorities should understand it is footage that shows something that happened, which may indeed be embarrassing for some authorities but does not constitute an offence," the organization said in a statement posted on its site Sep. 24. "We urge the Commission to set aside its Sep. 3 ruling and in general, we call on the authorities to stop the censorship and intimidation that pushes journalists into self-censorship."

Malaysia is ranked 132 out of 173 countries on RWB's 2008 world press freedom index.

Several media associations across the region have also hit out at the MCMC's probe on Malaysiakini.

Bangkok-based Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) and the Philippines-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), have written to the MCMC to voice their concerns.

"SEAPA has seen the videos, Malaysiakini's coverage and the circumstances surrounding the same, and we have come to the conclusion that Malaysiakini has done nothing more than cover two legitimate news events," the group's executive director Roby Alampay, said in a letter to MCMC COO Mohd Sharil Tarmizi. "SEAPA calls on the MCMC to cease its questioning of Malaysiakini editors and any further pressures that would violate Malaysiakini's rights and prerogatives to cover events and the news as they see fit."

CMFR's executive director, Melinda De Jesus, called on the MCMC to stop the "harassment" of Malaysiakini and its editors so the site may continue to fulfill its mandate, as a news organization, to deliver news to a public that needs information on events that affect it.

In a letter to the MCMC's Sharil, PINA urged the regulator to "stop its intimidating tactics and harassment" of Malaysiakini's editorial team.

The Malaysian government last month said it had no plans to censor online content, following reports that it was looking at proposals to impose an Internet filter to block "undesirable" content.

Local authorities last year detained political blogger Raja Petra Kamaruddin under sedition charges. Kamaruddin, who is the editor of political portal Malaysia Today, was eventually released in November.

In a report last month, local politicians and industry players said the government's inconsistencies with its treatment of online censorship could have adverse effects on foreign confidence and investments.

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

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