M'sian bloggers arrest dashes hope for change

Recent arrest of two Malaysian bloggers signal the government's unwillingness to soften its stance on alternative online media, say industry observers.

Recent moves by the Malaysian government indicate it may not be ready to soften its stance against the blogger community, which has a growing influence amongst the country's Netizens.

In the aftermath of the nation's general election in March, where Malaysian bloggers were deemed to have contributed to the ruling party's dismal performance, government leaders offered an olive branch to bloggers and announced measures to reform the judiciary and strengthen the fight against corruption.

However, the subsequent arrest of two bloggers under the country's sedition laws appear to have dampened hopes that the government may be softening its tough stance against the online medium.

Raja Petra Kamaruddin, Web master for news site Malaysia Today, was charged on May 6 with sedition over an article he wrote on the site. In the posting, titled Let's send the Altantuya murderers to hell, Raja Petra implicated Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife in the murder case of Altantuya Shaariibuu, a Mongolian national.

Businessman Syed Akbar Ali was also separately charged that same day under the Sedition Act, for posting a comment on Malaysia Today.

Following the March election, a number of BN leaders--some whom were previously ardent critics of bloggers--jumped on the bandwagon and started blogging.

However, bloggers and political observers had been skeptical of the ruling Barisan Nasional's (BN) efforts to reach out to the community.

Centre for Independent Journalism Advocacy Officer Yip Wai Fong said the ruling BN government is "very intolerant" when bloggers wrote about the shenanigans of the political leadership. While a number of BN leaders had started blogging, Yip told ZDNet Asia it did not mean the government was becoming more attuned to the blogger community.

"They realize they can't ignore the influence of Internet community. By blogging, these BN leaders are merely seeking to communicate their messages through this medium," she said in an interview. "The content of their messages haven't changed, and neither are they changing to become more democratic."

The CIJ said the action against the two bloggers showed the government has reverted to using tactics of fear and intimidation in its dealings with alternative media and bloggers.

Still a risky affair
Newly-appointed Information Minister Ahmad Shabery Cheek had earlier discussed plans to schedule a meeting with the blogger community to "hear them out".

Shabery said: "The alternative media, like bloggers, play a role in nation building. It is the most direct and simple channel for people to voice their opinions."

He also gave an assurance that the government would not seek to control Malaysian bloggers. Shabery's stance was in direct contrast with his predecessor who routinely castigated bloggers for their anti-government reports.

However, the recent arrest and indictment of the two bloggers have brought home the reality that blogging still remains a risky affair in Malaysia. This is believed to be the first time Malaysian bloggers have been charged with sedition, which carries a fine and a maximum jail term of three years if convicted.

The indictment of blog commentator Syed Akbar and Raja Petra, widely deemed to be an intrepid political blogger, roused the ire of bloggers and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

An alliance of civil society groups and bloggers expressed their solidarity and support for the bloggers. "This move is politically motivated and aimed at silencing a principled and uncompromising voice speaking against the abuse of power," said Ahirudin Attan, president of Interim Council National Alliance of Bloggers, who runs the popular Rocky's Bru blog.

"We urge the government to reconsider its actions, perceived to be blatantly selective and repressive persecution," Ahirudin said at a press conference following the arrests.

The Malaysian Bar Council also expressed its alarm over the disturbing trend of using the Sedition Act as a means of stifling debate and exchange of opinions.

The council, which represents Malaysia's 12,000 lawyers, argued that the Act should not be used against people exercising their constitutional right of freedom of speech.

In a statement issued May 9, the Bar Council chairperson Ambiga Sreenevasan expressed concern over reports that Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi had instructed a police report to be lodged against the opposition Democratic Action Party's (DAP) lawmaker Karpal Singh.

"This move following the recent charges of sedition against Raja Petra Kamarudin and Syed Akhbar Ali, signals a disturbing trend toward the use of archaic and oppressive legislation such as the Sedition Act, as a means of stifling debate and exchange of opinions," Sreenevasan said.

Deputy PM Najib has denied the charge against Raja Petra was politically motivated.

"The government has always taken a very liberal stand with bloggers and the Internet. But there are laws in this country related to sedition and defamation," he was quoted in a report from the New Straits Time daily. "Just because you operate from cyberspace, it does not absolve you from having those laws applied to you."

In January this year, Ahirudin and high-profile blogger, Jeff Ooi, were sued for defamation by government-linked New Straits Times Press.

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