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Malaysia govt seeks leverage in Internet fight

Malaysia's government may have said "no" to an Internet filter as it seeks parity with the opposition in cyberspace, but it retains a raft of laws to prosecute bloggers and shut down sites it deems offensive.

world Updated: Aug 11, 2009 14:36 IST
David Chance

Malaysia's government may have said "no" to an Internet filter as it seeks parity with the opposition in cyberspace, but it retains a raft of laws to prosecute bloggers and shut down sites it deems offensive.

The Internet has emerged as a key battleground for hearts and minds in this Southeast Asian country of 27 million people and the government that has ruled Malaysia for 51 years has wavered between freedom, to lure in foreign investment, and control.

Last week, the government denied it was planning to impose controls on the Internet similar to China's delayed "Green Dam" project after details of a tender leaked.

What concerns the government, which lost control of urban centres such as Kuala Lumpur in the 2008 general election, is that by pushing broadband out to 50 percent of the population by the end of 2010, double current levels, it could end up sowing the seeds of disaster in elections due by 2013.

The government fell to its worst ever results in national and state polls in 2008 under lacklustre Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi who promised greater freedoms and to tackle corruption but backtracked on those promises.

Stories on the Internet showing judicial corruption played a major part in undermining the government as did lawsuits against prominent bloggers like Jeff Ooi, now an opposition MP, who used an online campaign to raise huge amounts of cash to get elected.

"UMNO (the main ruling party) and the government have been talking of controlling the Internet in one form or another since the last general election," said Zaid Ibrahim, the country's former law minister who resigned and joined the opposition.

Malaysia has considered forcing bloggers to register, although given existing laws to suppress dissent, it doesn't need additional powers to imprison them and curtail output.

An opposition MP is to be investigated using sedition laws for comments he allegedly made on a blog relating to a Malay royal, according to Malaysian newspapers. The opposition MP has denied that he wrote the offending blog, which has been deleted.

The state government in northern Perak will also pursue action against two bloggers who it says made comments that insulted the royal family of Perak, which the Perak Chief Minister said amounted to "sedition and probably treason" the New Straits Times reported on Tuesday.

The country's most famous blogger, Raja Petra Kamaruddin, is on the run from sedition charges after being released from detention under the Internal Security Act.

Raja Petra (http://mt.m2day.org/) has alleged that Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife Rosmah Mansoor were involved in the lurid murder of a Mongolian model, something both deny and for which no evidence has been produced.

PARTY-OWNED NEWSPAPERS

Malaysia's print media is largely owned by the political parties. The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the main ruling party in the National Front coalition controls the most influential daily, the New Straits Times Press.

UMNO's ally, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), owns the Star newspaper, the biggest daily in circulation.

State broadcaster RTM is to broadcast announcements on Najib's 1Malaysia (www.1Malaysia.com) concept of national unity and the country's "National Principles" at the end of its programmes, Information, Communications and Culture Minister Rais Yatim said in the New Straits Times.

It was Rais' ministry that issued the Internet tender that emerged last week.

But analysts say the mainstream media -- where annual licenses are needed for newspapers -- is in danger of losing relevance and the National Front is still trying to come up with a strategy for addressing the opposition on the net.

Malaysia has fallen in the Reporters Sans Frontiers press freedom rankings to 132 in 2008 from 110 in 2002.

Thirst for online news was kicked off by what many people saw as biased reporting during the 1998 trial of then deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim.

Anwar's trials for corruption and sodomy gave birth to Malaysiakini (www.malaysiakinini), a leading online news portal that has spawned many imitators.

The government has only just woken up to the need to fight in cyberspace where it cannot control what happens.

"If there are weaknesses, then the government and the BN (National Front) should welcome such criticisms," Koh Tsu Koon, a minister in the prime minister's office said on Friday after last week's net censorship story broke.

The MCA party is backing a site called the Malaysian Mirror (www.malaysianmirror.com.my) that started this year.

Najib's wife has gone online (www.pmo.gov.my/datinrosmah) to counteract what she says is negative propaganda and so that people are not influenced by "messages with elements of slander".

"UMNO has recruited bloggers to match those from the opposition, but as you can see they, too, have difficulty in maintaining their credibility," said the opposition's Zaid.