Dangerous Legal Climate for Bloggers in Malaysia

To follow up on Dan Gillmor's post earlier today, disturbing reports (here, here, and here) are emerging about the legal climate for bloggers in Malaysia. Yesterday, police detained Raja Petra Kamarudin, a prominent political commentator and blogger. They interrogated him for eight hours about articles he has posted recently and about user comments to his postings. Kamarudin is the editor of one of Malaysia's most popular political websites, Malaysia Today, which draws approximately 340,000 visitors a day, according to Chow Kum Hor of the Straits Times. The police summoned Kamarudin to Dang Wangi district police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, following a complaint by the ruling United Malays National Organization on Monday, claiming that Kamarudin had insulted the king and Islam on his website.

Upon his release from detention, Kamarudin wrote to his readers, emphasizing the government's interest in user comments and warning that "what you post in the comments section may get me sent to jail under the Sedition Act." According to Reporters Without Borders (RWB), Kamarudin faces a possible three-year prison sentence. Charles Ramendran of the Sun reports that Kamarudin's wife said that this is the second time her husband has been brought in for questioning over a posting on his website. The police questioned him last year over a posting about the sale of state titles, but did not formally charge him.

This detention and interrogation came 11 days after police detained Nathaniel Tan, a blogger and member of the opposition Justice Party (PKR), for four days in connection with an investigation under the Official Secrets Act. Tan may have been detained because his blog linked to a website with information about a corruption case involving a high government official. (See reports about Tan's detention, here and here.)

These two cases cause many to fear that a new government crackdown on online speech is underway. Some believe that the crackdown is aimed at those critical of the current Malaysian administration, with a view to muzzling dissent in the run-up to the next general election early next year. The government disputes this, claiming that the goal is not to suppress political dissent, but to curb speech that will cause turmoil among Malaysia's different ethnic and religious groups. Regardless of the motivation, Malaysian government officials are giving bloggers plenty of cause for concern. Based on the reports of V. Vasudevan and Chow Kum Hor of the Straits Times, some choice statements by officials in recent days include:

  • Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz, a minister in the Prime Minister's department, said yesterday that "[t]he time for talk is over, now is the time to act." He also said that the government would use tough security laws such as the Internal Security Act and the Sedition Act against bloggers who raise sensitive issues, adding ominously, "[w]e have been very patient."

  • Datuk Seri Najib Razak, the deputy prime minister, said at a press awards dinner yesterday that he was deeply troubled by the growth of "irresponsible" alternative media. He added, "In the name of freedom, these websites allow the broadcast of slander, lies and swearing, the use of harsh, degrading language and racial slurs without regard for the reader or those concerned." In an interview yesterday with the Straits Times, he also said "They [bloggers] 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."

The Internal Security Act, mentioned by Nazri Aziz, allows the government to detain suspects indefinitely without charge or trial. (You can find a Human Rights Watch "backgrounder" article about the Internal Security Act here.) Aziz mentioned another law that could be used against bloggers, Section 121(b) of the Malaysian Penal Code, which deals with offenses against the authority of the king and carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.

Dan Gillmor is right to say that is is a reminder of the value of free speech; it is also chilling reminder of the draconian laws and tactics sometimes used by governments to control online speech.




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