MALAYSIA: Is KL cracking down on cyberspace?
Umno's crackdown on websites criticizing Abdullah administration fuels fears
The Straits Times
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
By Chow Kum Hor
The police report lodged against prominent webmaster Raja Petra Kamaruddin has fuelled fears in cyberspace that a crackdown is imminent against websites and blogs critical of the government.
Long used to the freedom to bash the government and fan racial-religious sentiment in unmoderated Internet debates, many now worry whether they should watch every word.
"Is the axe finally coming down in Malaysian cyberspace?" opposition leader Lim Kit Siang wrote on his blog.
Umno's information chief Muhammad Muhammad Taib caused an uproar among Netizens on Monday when he lodged a police report against postings on Raja Petra's Malaysia Today website which allegedly insulted the King and incited racial hatred on July 11.
The move against Malaysia Today came 11 days after Mr Nathaniel Tan, a webmaster with an opposition party, was detained by police in connection with a probe under the Official Secrets Act.
Many see the two events as the start of a crackdown on those who attack the Abdullah administration, with a view to muzzling dissent before the next general election.
Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad was quoted as saying as much in Malaysiakini, the news portal yesterday.
"Yes there is an attempt. But you cannot stop people from using the Internet," he said.
For urbanites, especially the non-Malays who are already upset with rising crime and the debate over whether Malaysia is an Islamic state, the move against Raja Petra will be seen as another letdown.
They may well view this as a regression of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's pledge of openess and transparency.
"[The police report] has sent a signal that the government is willing to act if it comes across postings it does not like in cyberspace," said Mr Ibrahim Suffian, who heads the Merdeka Centre, an independent polling body.
Government leaders have said any action, if taken, against Raja Petra should not be read as the signal of a crackdown.
In an interview with The Straits Times yesterday, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak sought to argue that the move was aimed at getting some moderation in postings on the Net, especially on sensitive issues, such as race and religion, rather than muzzling dissent.
"Some people feel that they have crossed the line, in making racist remarks," he said.
He added that the latest moves had nothing to do with talk of elections which some say might be held later this year or early next year. Blogs had participated in by-elections without government interference, he said.
"They can be anti-government but if they try to stir up racial feelings, and become very derogatory about religion and race, a lot of discomfort comes from that sort of racist and seditious remarks among bloggers," he said.
De-facto Law Minister Nazri Abdul Aziz warned that the government would not hesitate to use tough security laws such as the Internal Security Act and the Sedition Act against bloggers who raise sensitive issues.
'We have the right and we will do it. We have been very patient,' he said when speaking in the Senate yesterday.
Set up three years ago, Malaysia Today boasts 340,000 visitors a day.
Raja Petra has strongly defended his website.
"Look, many people, especially the non-Malays in this country, do not have a forum to air their views," he said. "We should not deny these people a chance to vent their feelings."
That view seems set to be tested.
Date Posted: 7/25/2007