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Sunday, May 19, 2013
- A government plan to control online media has sparked widespread protest from journalists and lawmakers who say the move is a sign of the ruling party’s desperation as it prepares for a “do or die” general election.
The plan, announced mid-January, is to apply strict publication laws to online news media for “national security” reasons.
“This plan is the final nail in the coffin for press freedom. The little freedom of expression that Malaysians have enjoyed online over the past 16 years will end,” said Steven Gan, founder and chief editor of the online publication Malaysiakini, a premier online news provider. “They are changing the rules out of political desperation.”
Online journalists see the sudden announcement as a prelude to a crackdown ahead of the general elections. Prime Minister Najib Razak recently described the elections as a “do or die” battle for the ruling 13-party National Front coalition he heads.
Unlike mainstream media, Internet-based news has earned credibility and following for its speedy and accurate reporting. Online news organizations freely report on political developments that take centre stage in a country divided by race and religion.
Much of the anger and criticism against the National Front government’s excesses and race-based politics is found in online news reporting. The mainstream media, on the other hand, carefully packages the news as upbeat and proactive to support the official view.
Unlike Malaysian newspapers and broadcast networks, Internet-based media is freer and openly challenges the official line, in part because Internet technology itself is difficult to control and contents hard to censor. There is also a 15-year-old government guarantee, still in force, not to muzzle the Internet and its contents.
This guarantee was put in place to invite and encourage foreign investment in the information technology sector and is still respected by the government, but critics say it would be violated if the new rules to control Internet news were enforced.
Under the government plan, tough new guidelines similar to that applied on mainstream media would be set against online news reporting, ostensibly to prevent libel, sedition and, more importantly, to curb what is termed as “anti- national reporting.”
Officials say online reporting is endangering the “peace and harmony” of Malaysia’s multi-ethnic society.
Law minister Muhammed Nazri Aziz said national security takes “definite” precedence over the right of publication and vowed to combat the “intrusion of digital” news.
“It is a death blow to online reporting if rules are made to censor Internet news reporting,” said Gan, a pioneer online journalist.
The law that currently applies to mainstream media is the draconian Printing Presses and Publication Act (PPPA) in which government loosely and arbitrarily defines sedition to discourage criticism of political leaders.
Reporting that crosses the official line can be easily punished under the catch-call “national security” clause in the PPPA.
Also under the PPPA, inaccurate news is termed “false news” and is punishable with a one-year imprisonment. In addition, mainstream news organizations must secure annual licences that expire automatically at year end and need to be applied for again to be able to continue publication.
These provisions ensure that print and broadcast editors remain at the beck and call of authorities. If they ignore or refuse friendly advice, the authorities can terminate licences or refuse applications at year end, ensuring direct and indirect control over the contents of publication.
The government also indirectly owns, through friendly third parties, chunks of media shares, which guarantees government the final say on all matters considered “sensitive”, including corruption exposés.
The plan to extend the mainstream media curbs to online media is seen as a pre-emptive strike to curb online content ahead of the general election.
The People’s Alliance or Pakatan Rakyat coalition, led by the charismatic Anwar Ibrahim, is challenging the National Front for state power in elections widely expected later this year.
In the 2008 general elections, the Pakatan Rakyat won five state governments and, for the first time in 53 years, denied the National Front two-thirds majority in the 222-seat bicameral parliament.
Since then, however, the Pakatan has been hit by internal strife, defections and disagreement over how to manage Islam in public life.
Information and its dissemination is a key component in the next big electoral battle between the two coalitions seeking to influence voters. While the National Front is stressing peace, stability and progress, the Pakatan Rakyat is building its strategy on change for a better society.
Who will ultimately emerge victorious depends largely on who wins the information war that has started between the two coalitions with the authorities trying to manage online news dissemination, a major conduit of the Pakatan Rakyat to reach voters.