Khairil Zhafri Dec 29, 07 4:57pm
Internet has played a crucial role in giving prominence to the 'Lingam tape' scandal and the rot in the judiciary among Malaysians.
Such exposés would have had a short lifespan if it were not for the Internet in Malaysia, said Bangkok-based regional journalists group Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa).
According to Seapa’s ‘Free Expression Report 2007', which was released yesterday, the Internet has helped the civil society in Malaysia to push the envelope of freedom.
“The Internet, which has increased democratic space in Malaysia and fuelled demand for space elsewhere, in rallies, public talks and even the mainstream media, as people are beginning to realise how they are shortchanged by the government's monopoly on truth.”
The Lingam tape controversy was sparked by a grainy eight-minute video clip showing a senior lawyer talking to a top member of judiciary on judge-fixing.The video, which was made public by PKR de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim on Sept 19, was immediately posted on various websites including online news portal Malaysiakini and video sharing website YouTube.
Internet comes under fire
Seapa however said that the past 12 months saw the government going back on its much-touted promise about keeping cyberspace free.
“Putrajaya has showed signs of backing down from a long-standing promise to never censor the Internet, while political parties and the mainstream media they control have directly taken on bloggers in court,” lamented the report.
Leaders from the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition have made repeated calls to curb online writers with Umno proposing the setting up of a team 'cyber-troopers' to monitor anti-government blogs.
“Exposés of bad governance were met with lawsuits, threats of legal action, or media restrictions,” said Seapa, referring to the lawsuit by Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud's defamation suit against Malaysiakini and the one-month suspension of Tamil daily Makkal Osai for allegedly offending religious sensibilities.
"Laws on sedition, defamation and official secret
- which are among the main weapons to check traditional media - were invoked on five Internet-related cases," the report added.
- Independent bloggers Jeff Ooi and Ahiruddin Attan were sued for "defamation" and "malicious falsehood" when they criticised Umno-linked New Straits Times in their blogs.
- Opposition activist Nathaniel Tan was arrested for defamation and detained four days over a link on his website left by an anonymous poster alleging official corruption.
- Police questioned fellow activist Tian Chua over a teaser photomontage about a high-profiled murder case of a Mongolian who was blown up to pieces.
- Political blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin was interrogated for allegedly insulting the monarchy; his wife was subjected to a similar round of questioning despite having nothing to do with blogging.
- Student Wee Meng Chee was probed for his allegedly seditious music video on YouTube that turned the national anthem into a rap about the general malaise in the country.
Breaking mainstream media dominance
According to Seapa, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s government has been no different than during his predecessor's time when self-censorship was the norm for mainstream media.
"Public outcry over official scandals or social and religious concerns were nipped in the bud by labelling the issues sensitive, followed by either a media ban or instructions to limit sources to the ruling elite and authorities," said the report.
The Malaysian section of the ‘Freedom of Expression 2007' report was prepared by Yip Wai Fong, advocacy officer of Centre for Independent Journalism, which is Seapa’s partner in Malaysia.According to Yip, the presence of international broadcaster Al Jazeera - which set up its regional headquarters in Kuala Lumpur this year - has allowed “alternative coverage of public events reaching the Malaysian masses”.
However, Yip said that the biggest stride for democratic space was made not through the Internet, but rather “the most basic form of expressive conduct”.
Yip was referring to the massive street demonstrations over the past few months in Kuala Lumpur.
The demonstrations which were in defiance of a police ban showed that Malaysians are no longer afraid to speak up despite the mainstream media dismissing street protests as "an ‘alien’ and violent culture", said Yip.