Thursday, October 7, 2004

Malaysia threatens to use Internal Security Act and sedition laws against webmasters

Malaysia threatens to use Internal Security Act and sedition laws against webmasters

Country/Topic: Malaysia
Date: 07 October 2004
Source: Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)
Person(s):
Target(s): Internet/website(s)
Type(s) of violation(s): threatened
Urgency: Threat

(SEAPA/IFEX) - SEAPA is gravely concerned by the government's stated intent to use the Internal Security Act (ISA) and Sedition Act to potentially control the flow of information and opinion in Malaysia-based Internet operations.

On 4 October 2004, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was quoted by a local daily, the "New Straits Times", as saying his government will look into using the ISA against webmasters who allow irresponsible comments and content to be posted on their sites. Badawi was reacting to a newspaper report that the website "Screenshots" had published "views ridiculing Islam" on 30 September (see previous IFEX alert of 7 October 2004).

Deputy Minister of Internal Security Datuk Noh Omar said he would investigate the person who posted the comment. Another senior official overseeing the implementation of the 2001 Communication and Multimedia Act has also threatened to use the Sedition Act against the cyber-commentator.

A Malay-language daily, "Berita Harian", accused Screenshots webmaster Jeff Ooi of "failing to control the forum by allowing an opinion ridiculing Islam to be published."

In his defense, Ooi said he had already blocked the writer in question from the website after the man ignored e-mails admonishing him on issues of plagiarism and blasphemy.

Beyond the facts of the controversial Screenshots postings, SEAPA is concerned that Malaysia may exploit the issue to further restrict the flow of information in the country. The Internet is the most viable medium for independent news and information in Malaysia, where print and broadcast journalism is controlled by state ownership, licensing rules and political intolerance of criticism.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had committed to leaving the Internet relatively untouched. As a result, the web now plays host to a handful of alternative and independent news outlets, such as http://www.Malaysiakini.com. These new news providers are constantly pushing the boundaries of free expression in Malaysia, testing and exploiting the virtual space that Mahathir had vowed to respect.

"It should be noted that censorship of the Internet was explicitly rejected in the Communications and Multimedia Act 2001," the Kuala Lumpur-based Center for Independent Journalists (CIJ) said in a statement.

SEAPA and the CIJ are concerned that the government has found an excuse to influence web content as well. The organisations are concerned that the very suggestion of using the ISA and sedition laws against a webmaster may have a chilling effect on other content providers. The ISA allows for detention without trial for up to two years, with a 60-day "investigation period". Crimes under the Sedition Act are punishable by prison terms of up to three years.

In January 2003, police raided the office of Malaysiakini.com and carted away dozens of computers after using sedition laws to clamp down on the Internet news provider (see IFEX alerts of 8 October, 27, 22, 21 and 20 January 2003).

"Wielding the ISA and the Sedition Act against webmasters will create a climate of fear and self-censorship on the Internet," SEAPA said in a statement. "This further chokes the already limited options Malaysians have for free, independent and reliable news and information."