With national elections looming, perhaps as early as August or September, the Malaysian government is warning its legions of myriad social media critics to knock off tweeting or posting content the government deems “inappropriate.”
The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission has promulgated a new “advisory for group admins” that critics say is designed to coerce social media platforms such as Facebook and others in the country to censor postings by opponents of the government.
The Barisan Nasional, the national ruling coalition, has cause for concern. According to Steven Gan, editor of the independent news website Malaysiakini, the next election, which must be held before August of 2018 but is likely to be earlier, is likely to be fought out in social media, with as many as 70 percent of Malaysians online.
With the mainstream media – English, Malay and Chinese language newspapers, radio and television – in the hands of political parties aligned with the government, an increasing number of citizens are turning to the Internet to seek independent voices.
As Asia Sentinel reported on April 22, opposition websites and independent news publications have been warned to mute their criticism or face being shut down. The Chinese-language newspaper Nanyang Siang Pau was warned over a cartoon satirizing the Speaker of Parliament as a monkey and told to suspend the staff involved.
The government is running scared for a variety of reasons, the biggest being a massive scandal involving the misuse or theft of as much as US$11 billion from the state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd., with at least US$1 billion and as much as US$2 billion having ended up in Prime Minister Najib Razak’s own pockets, according to an ongoing investigation by US authorities looking into the purchase by nominees of houses, apartments, art works and a wide variety of other US assets, and the funding of the 2013 movie Wolf of Wall Street starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
The Barisan Nasional actually lost the popular vote in the 2013 general election but prevailed because the parliament was so thoroughly gerrymandered that the coalition ended up with 133 seats to 89 for the opposition, then headed by Anwar Ibrahim, who was later jailed on sexual perversion charges that human rights critics have characterized as trumped up.
Subsequently rising antipathy on the part of minority races, particularly the Chinese, has cut deeply into the Barisan’s support, leaving it largely supported only by ethnic Malays, who make up at least 63 percent of the population of 30 million. Given rising antipathy on the part of urban Malays, strategists for the Barisan believe the United Malays National Organization, the leader of the government coalition, must win every ethnic Malay vote possible in the countryside – where the mainstream media rule along with UMNO.
That means trying to keep out as much chaff from the social media as possible, including people who retweet or post Chedet, the blog of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Najib’s most implacable opponent, which gets thousands of readers every day, or the Sarawak Report, which despite being blocked by the communications ministry (along with Asia Sentinel) can draw more than 100,000 readers on a single story.
Mahathir is said to be making inroads among the rural Malays supported by the Federal Land Development Authority, or Felda, which was founded to handle the resettlement of the rural poor, most of them ethnic Malays. The government listed Felda on the Malaysian stock exchange in 2012 and induced the thousands of settlers – whose territory covers 54 of UMNO’s 86 seats in parliament – to invest in the shares. Because of a variety of missteps, the shares have fallen in value steeply, impoverishing the settlers who bought into them. Felda Global Ventures as the public vehicle is now known, may be forced to delist.
Mahathir and PPBM, which he calls Parti Bersatu against the wishes of the government, have capitalized on the discontent to the point where political analysts believe he will pull away a number of those UMNO seats, perhaps 10 or 11 – two of which are held by Najib’s lieutenants.
Thus the communications ministry targets “administrators” of group pages hosted on communication platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Wechat, Viber and Telegram, or on similar services, advising them to take a proactive role in monitoring and removing content posted by others to their pages.
“While not a legally enforceable regulation in itself, a warning on the ministry’s Facebook page accompanying the advisory stated that Internet users should ‘be wise in using social media for their own protection,’” according to Article 19, a global rights watchdog with representatives in Malaysia. “This implies that failure to comply with the advisory may make group admins liable for the posts of others, even though this type of liability for third-party content is not currently provided for in Malaysian law.”
As Article 19 points out, a growing number of individuals are being arrested, investigated and charged in Malaysia for online criticism or questioning of the government under the sedition law, a toughened communications and multimedia act and a security act passed last year.
“Article 19 therefore considers that the MCMC advisory is seeking to deliver an implicit threat to social media users, that even if they are not the author of offending content, they can still be prosecuted by association,” according to Kuala Lumpur-based spokeswoman Nilani Alumalai. “This is likely to have the effect of co-opting private internet users into the role of enforcing draconian content restrictions in the online sphere, with victims of this censorship not having any recourse to challenge or seek redress for such removals. This is a concerning direction of travel, in particular if attempts are made to give legal force to the vague ‘advice’ of the MCMC. “
The advisory by the communications ministry appears to violate an agreement promulgated by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media, the Organization of American States (OAS) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information that individuals cannot be held liable for content they have not authored unless they disobey court orders to remove such content.
The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression also warned that private actors should not be pressured by legal or extra-legal means to take steps that unnecessarily or disproportionately interfere with freedom of expression, including by removing content.
“The MCMC advisory is clearly intended to pressure social media users, against international freedom of expression standards, and against the spirit of the freedom of expression guarantees in Article 10(a) of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia,” Article 19 said. The rights organization urged the communications ministry to “retract the advisory without delay and make clear to social media users that they cannot be held responsible for content created by third parties. We also call on the Malaysian government to engage in comprehensive reforms to legislation that violates the right to freedom of expression, including online, in particular the CMA, the Sedition Act, and the Penal Code.”