BY ROBYN CHOI
There are indications that new laws will be introduced in Parliament later this month to amend the Communications and Multimedia Act 1988 (CMA). Consultations were said to have taken place between the government departments and agencies. Todate, civil society organisations, especially those involved in looking into freedom of expression in particular media freedom, have not been informed as to the nature of the amendments, let alone consulted.
What has been indicated thus far are that the amendments are likely to be introduced to regulate content online and in respect of requirements for licensing of certain content providers/websites (both local and foreign) especially news content providers, registration of blogs, increased penalties on offences and provisions concerning internet service providers.
If the indicators so far are correct as to the nature of the CMA Bill, every one will be affected : a) individually, b) interest groups like students, researchers, teachers, professional bodies, women’s groups, business networks etc.c) various Malaysian online communities especially dealing with marginalised and fringe minority groups, d) businesses, those who sell and advertise products and services online, those who invests on online applications and online technology, those who directly invest in content online, and e) internet service providers like TMNET, Maxis, Digi etc.
Let us consider the trend on how our government had regulated online content in the past two years. In the past two years, the government had severely interfered with freedom of speech on the internet through increased blocking of online media sites both local and international, intensified questioning and/or arresting of activists, journalists, lawyers and cartoonists over online activities and the passing of a series of tougher laws with stiffer penalties dealing with online expression. Last year alone no less than 1,263 have been blocked – 632 websites based on the application of local law enforcement agencies, while 631 websites were blocked for offences under the CMA. We have been told that from January to February 2016, a further 399 websites have been blocked, and 22 persons called in for questioning by the Multimedia Communications Commission Malaysia (MCMC).
According to Communications and Multimedia Minister Salleh Said Keruak, among the 399 websites blocked in January & February include online gambling, scams, prostitution, and websites that contain obscene, lewd, false content and others. While we may agree that websites offering vice ought to be blocked, what about the non-vice websites that have been blocked?
You may wish to read up examples of the other type of websites that have been blocked last year (and as far as we know remains blocked) at http://cilisos.my/8-sites-the-malaysian-gomen-blocked-in-2015-that-werent-porn/.
Malaysians need to ask:
- Why is the Malaysian government not allowing me access to information freely available everywhere else in the world except when I am home in Malaysia?
- Why did the government block content and news sites like medium.com, AsiaSentinel, MalaysiaChronicle and TMI? Why is the blog page of just displaying photographs like jingo-fotopages blocked or one which discusses issues on Tabung Haji blocked? What is so dangerous about the content in those sites that you and I must be protected from it? Who exactly is the government trying to protect?
- How do I stop the government from interfering with my right to access what I want online?
- What about what I post online, will my service provider give away my online activity records to the authorities?
- Will an imposed penalty stop me from posting my comments online?
- Will TMNET, or Maxis or whoever you pay for internet service make a stand on online freedom – because they are the ones who will be doing the blocking your access after receiving the request or direction for the government authorities.
These are questions which must be asked, and certainly some answers demanded of our members of parliament if they are to consider amending the CMA to give greater powers to the authorities to regulate online activities.
When the government treats news portals like porn websites, blocking them without any cogent reason or consultation, there are huge and unfair consequences to many. A unilateral block of the entire TMI news website (and not just one article) had caused it to close down – its owners/investors suffered. Its editors and writer and other employees lost their jobs. Media groups and clients who have invested in advertisements lost money. Malaysian online readers lost their right to access to information through what many will agree was a credible news provider. Future investors will think twice before investing in any Malaysian online business ventures in respect of online content, especially news.
All online participants know and have been warned time and again that the Government is looking at what we post online. We should now start looking back at the government and ask them: “What are you looking at?” and “Why?”, “Why is my online activities any of your business?”, “What was wrong or so harmful about a certain blog that you need to block me from reading it?” “Why must I register my website/blog with you?”.
The vague reasoning that the government has given to justify regulating content online is the feeble usual “danger to parliamentary democracy” and/or a “threat to national security” (and for that matter, “unverified” news or “false content” should never be a ground to block a news provider as was done to TMI, when we have sufficient laws on defamation to protect innocent parties from slander and libel).
This is the 21st century and online freedom is essential to any democracy, Malaysia is no different. Parliamentary democracy thrives with greater participation from citizens, and the internet is currently the most effective platform for participation by Malaysians to express themselves on matters concerning the nationhood. Malaysians are heavy internet users especially on social media. We have 20million online users, of which 18million are Facebook subscribers.
Those in power will do well to respect that we have a democracy – and that a citizen’s participation right is not made available only once every general election and ends with the number of votes in ballot boxes. It starts there with MPs being elected to enable representative participation in matters of nationhood. That representation does not in any way negate participation by every citizen of Malaysia matters concerning local communities, local councils, state and national issues.
National security? We know that the real threat to our national security lies in the rise in corruption and crime, racism, religious bigotry and contempt for intellectual public discourse and how our government is failing to address these threats. If those in power are willing to listen to and not curtail the voices of the rakyat, with open online discussions and consultations, both rakyat and the government can start working on getting the country back on track.