It was abundantly clear from the reaction to the Bersih 2.0 rally on July 9th that the Malaysian government has become ever more insecure about its hold on power. And yet as the government becomes ever more insecure the measures it resort to in order to shore up its hold on power become ever more disproportionate and some might say desperate. Last week provided two examples of this.
The first was the ruling on July 19th in a defamation case brought by Interior Minister Rais Yatim against blogger Amizudin Ahmat. Amizudin Ahmat, better known as ‘Din Binjai’, had posted a blog entry that alleged a Cabinet Minister had raped his Indonesian housemaid besides a picture of Rais. The judge rule in favor of the minister and ordered that Amizudin pay RM400,000 (approx. $120,000). While the Malaysian government remains officially committed to its policy of not censoring the Internet in the last few years it has opted to pursue individual bloggers in the courts confident that a largely compliant judiciary will pass judgments whose cumulative effect will be self-censorship to avoid similar damages. This decision comes on the back of a ruling in February when Malaysia’s most famous blogger, Raja Petra Kamaruddin was found guilty of defaming senior lawyer Seri Muhamma Shafee Adbullah over three articles posted on his website Malaysia Today. To date damages have yet to be decided but Raja Petra has been in exile since 2008 when the charges were first brought against him.
The second example was the bizarre decision to censor specific words in an article that appeared in July 16th issue of The Economist. The article “Taken to the Cleaners”, which was broadly critical of the government’s response to the July 9th Bersih rally, had parts of the story blacked out by the publisher on the instruction of the Home Ministry purportedly because it contained “incorrect information” and could “mislead readers”. Regardless of whether the government’s complaint was valid or not the decision nevertheless reveals a government that is extraordinarily insecure about internal or external criticism. It also revealed remarkable naivety. The Economist may be the most prestigious weekly news magazine in the world but in Malaysia it has a circulation of barely 10,000, of which a sizeable proportion are foreign businessmen. In other words few if any Malaysians would have read the article in question. However by reacting the way it did the government turned the decision into a major international news story making the major new wires and newspapers from Australia to the United Kingdom. In so doing millions of Malaysians will have gone online in order to find out what all the fuss was about. Besides foreign coverage the story was also widely reported on Malaysian blogs and ‘independent’ Malaysian new sites. Furthermore there was nothing to stop anyone interested from visiting The Economist’s website itself where the story could be enjoyed minus the blacked out sections. In other words the decision will have simply confirmed to ordinary Malaysians that their government continues to run shy of freedom of expression and freedom of the press further fanning support for groups such as Bersih and The Center for Independent Journalism.
Written by Dr. Jason Abbott
Re-published from NetherlandsAid.org under the Creative Commons License
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