M'sian govt under fire for online media controls

Industry watchers and politicians decry proposal to include online content, blogs and social networks in laws governing publications, which they say is government's attempt to censor Web.

PETALING JAYA--The Malaysian government's move to introduce policies that will provide more control over online content has come under fire from opposition politicians and industry watchers.

According to a report this week by local news agency Bernama, the Home Ministry was reviewing the definition of the word "publication" in the country's Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) 1984 to decide if it should now include Internet content, blogs and social networks such as Facebook. The ministry noted that the landscape today is different with the intrusion of digital technology.

The PPPA governs publishing and the use of printing presses in Malaysia. Under the Act, all printing presses require a licence that must be renewed yearly and renewed based on the approval of the Home Ministry.

Net censorship outlawed

Malaysia's laws, detailing that the Internet cannot be censored, are provisioned under the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC)'s Bill of Guarantees as well as Article 3(3) of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998.

These policies were established in 1996 as part of former premier Mahathir Mohamad's efforts to liberalize Malaysia into an infocomm and multimedia powerhouse through projects such as the Multimedia Super Corridor.

The government has largely kept its promise not to enforce Internet censorship, with some glitches in the past including its attempt to block Netizens from accessing Malaysia Today, the Web site of prominent blogger, Raja Petra Kamaruddin.

Quoting the ministry's secretary-general Mahmood Adam, the report said: "We hope the amendments will be tabled in Parliament by March this year because we need to overcome weaknesses, especially those involving multimedia content."

The announcement, however, has received condemnation from the online community including social networks Twitter and Facebook, as well as politicians and industry watchdogs.

Lim Kit Siang, parliamentary leader of opposition Democratic Action Party, described the move as the government's latest attempt to quell online dissent and a clear violation of its promise not to enforce censorship on the Internet.

"They should be aware of this violation and if they proceed with this, they will frighten away investors," Lim told online news portal, The Malaysian Insider (TMI). "If the guarantee is not honoured, investors will view Malaysia as losing its credibility."

Step back to "stone age"
Edmund Bon, the Malaysian Bar Council's constitutional law committee chief, also pointed to the Bill of Guarantees (BoG) which contains the government's pledge not to censor the Internet. He told ZDNet Asia that any attempt to regulate online content is violation of this.

"The PPPA amendment is taking us further away as a civil society and closer to a police state," Bon told ZDNet Asia. "We can never become a developed nation with such laws... We are going back to the stone age."

Nik Nazmi, communications director of National Justice Party (PKR), said the government's attempt to extend the scope of the controversial law, as a way to demonstrate its commitment to reform civil liberties, is "merely superficial".

"PKR calls for the government to scrap this misguided plan and work toward amending the PPPA instead to show they are truly serious about change," Nik said in a statement.

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) also described the latest move as a backward attempt to block the spread of information to the public.

"The NUJ is worried and disappointed with the Home Ministry's plans to amend the PPPA in order to control media freedom in the country," NUJ President Hata Watahari said in a statement. "In view of this, NUJ wants the Home Ministry to immediately stop all efforts to amend the PPPA."

Khairy Jamaluddin, a Member of Parliament for the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, also voiced his concerns over the move to amend the Act. Noting in his blog that there were 8.5 million Facebook users in Malaysia, 84 percent of whom were aged 35 years and below, Khairy said the proposed move by the government would not only offend the younger generation, social networking users would not be able to accept any attempt to shackle a platform they were now so familiar with.

Amendments still under discussion
In a bid to quell the rising dissent, Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said in the local press Wednesday that the proposed PPPA amendments have yet to be finalized and discussions are still in the early stage.

The minister said no decisions have been made, adding that his secretary-general was simply giving his views on the issue.

Hishammuddin said any objection on the proposal would be premature since the actual amendments of the Act have not been determined. "These may be relaxed and loosened, or they may not even be [proposed] to the committee," he said.

Edwin Yapp is a freelance IT writer based in Malaysia.

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