Speaking Out in Malaysia

The arrest of blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin under Malaysia’s Internal Security Act on September 12, just as his website Malaysia Today (http://mt.m2day.org/) was reported to be unblocked, provides an ominous reminder that there may be more effective ways of silencing independent voices than Internet filtering.

Kamarudin was one of three individuals detained under the ISA on September 12. The reporter Tan Chee Hoon was briefly detained for writing about a ruling party official’s racist remarks, and has been released. Teresa Kok, an opposition member of Parliament, was reportedly detained for objecting to a mosque broadcasting its morning prayers too loudly. Kamarudin has already been embroiled in legal action this year, facing sedition and criminal defamation charges for his writings on Malaysia Today accusing government leaders of malfeasance. However, the provisions of the Internal Security Act (ISA) are far more draconian. The ISA allows for government officials to order the preventive detention of individuals suspected of acting in a manner "prejudicial to the security of Malaysia” for up to two years (and renewable indefinitely) without trial or any judicial review. Not only do the provisions of the ISA violate the right against arbitrary detention, the right to a fair and just trial, and other fundamental human rights, but detainees have also been subjected to torture and other abuses.

De facto Law Minister Zaid Ibrahim, a member of the ruling BN coalition who resigned over his government’s use of the ISA in these cases, said "there were ample punitive laws to act against lawbreakers without having to invoke the ISA. [The law] should only be used on armed terrorists or those out to topple the government by force.”

Along with Burma, Singapore and China, Malaysia’s print and broadcast media is either dominated by or closely aligned with government interests. Into the breach, independent news sites and bloggers have become popular and influential sources of information, and their pivotal role in mobilizing the opposition in Malaysia’s March 2008 general elections was a watershed moment. Until recently, legal resort to defamation and related charges against bloggers and media appeared to suffice for the Malaysian government, as well as for Singapore. ONI testing last year found no evidence of technical filtering in Malaysia, and indeed the promise to abstain from Internet filtering was a guarantee made to companies participating in the development of a national high-tech corridor. While many viewed targeted defamation suits as arbitrary abuses of law perpetrated by the powerful to punish and silence their critics, Malaysia and Singapore did not engage in another form of prior restraint by blocking access to politically sensitive information online. In this way, they provided an alternative model to the rapaciousness of China’s Great Firewall. Now, despite the relative absence of filtering, Malaysian leaders are proving to be increasingly intolerant of critical online political speech.

Malaysia Today is only one site among hundreds that publish information critical of certain government leaders, and blocking it was a sign that the arbitrariness inherent in using executive power to silence one’s enemies has been extended to the Internet. And yet the blocking of Malaysia Today, as with all technical means of filtering the Internet, was imperfect and incomplete. In detaining Kamarudin by using a law that denies him due process rights, and in effect silencing him indefinitely, Malaysia’s ruling coalition is showing itself to be manifestly insecure in its standing with its own people.