Last month members of the Malaysian media were invited to a private screening — of a sex video which allegedly caught opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on film with a sex worker.
The video soon circulated widely. The broadcast media screened the first one minute or so of the clip after it was "leaked" on YouTube. Large TV screens in the lobbies of government departments were also screening this clip for all the public to see.
Such explicit material would normally be condemned in Malaysia for being in conflict with Islamic values and common decency — but here the hand of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government in distributing this clip was obvious. Islamic values and common decency had to make way for their agenda.
Then there were the cyber attacks on two news portals, the Sarawak Report and Malaysiakini, that left one incapacitated and sent the other scrambling for alternatives. Both suffered unrelenting Distributed Denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks that temporarily brought their sites down.
The cyber-attack on Sarawak Report peaked on 10 April. This portal was set up to unearth the political corruption and abuse of power in the timber-rich state of Sarawak on Borneo. At publication, the site hadn’t gone back to business as usual. Last week, the editors posted the following: "Massive and unprecedented Cyber-attacks! Dozens of rival websites! Legal threats! US PR companies hired to write articles against us and then today a last desperate jamming attempt to knock our radio show off the air. What better confirmation could we have asked for that our work has had an effect?" Updates are being posted here.
Malaysiakini is a news site that offers critical analysis and coverage of corruption, abuse of rights and power, discrimination and poor governance in Malaysia. Attacks on it started on 12 April, a few days after the Sarawak Report. Malaysiakini managed to continue its operations by turning to WordPress and Google — but it has yet to revert to its regular URL.
The timing of these attacks was no coincidence: they both happened just days before the crucial Sarawak elections last Saturday. The Najib administration was watching the election closely: the results would allow it to gauge its popularity. There was a possibility that a snap general election to regain lost ground in the 2008 general election would be called.
Raja Petra Kamarudin is the editor of news website Malaysia Today. He knew from experience that his Malaysia Today portal was likely to be attacked and took precautions accordingly.
"As soon as the Sarawak state assembly was dissolved, we set up additional servers to take the load off the servers. The problem we were going to face is overload (due to too many hits) and DDOS attacks (which is our main concern)," he said in a posting on Sunday.
"We spent a lot of money doing this and we absorbed the cost. We did not make our readers pay for this sudden surge in expenses. We have been hit with DDOS attacks so many times that by now we know what to do."
But he did not anticipate a different sort of attack on his credibility. Shortly after the cyber attacks on Sarawak Report and Malaysiakini, an interview which Kamarudin gave in February was aired on national television. It was heavily edited and his quotes were taken out of context to give the impression that Prime Minister Najib was not at all linked to the grisly murder of Mongolian model Altantuya Shaariibu in 2006.
Abdul Razak Baginda, a former political analyst and close associate of Najib, was charged with abetting the murder of Altantuya but was acquitted. Despite calls for Najib, who was then Deputy Prime Minister, to answer claims that he had a hand in the crime, he has remained silent.
The Ibrahim video, the attacks on independent media outlets, and the manipulation of the interview with Kamarudin all occurred within weeks of each other. It’s a clear sign that controls on the Malaysian media are in good working order.
In fact, the media has been tightly controlled in Malaysia since the days of the British administration. Many restrictive laws enacted then have remained in place and. Thanks to former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, some of them have been further sharpened by giving the state more control and by including more punitive measures, among others. These restrictions have not been removed by his predecessors Abdullah Ahmad Badawi or by Najib.
One of the darkest moments in media freedom in Malaysia was during the 1987 Operation Lalang when four newspapers were shut down by the government under the Internal Security Act. Since then, newsrooms fear that a similar incident will happen. They have good reason for concern. Verbal threats have been issued by government officials either in public or in private to editors since then to keep them in line. One newspaper, English-language daily The Star, was allowed to operate by then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad only provided certain conditions were met — which included the sacking of several editors.
Such is the legacy of the Mahathir administration — and it’s being carried on in Najib’s Malaysia.
There are 47 pieces of legislation that hinder freedom of speech in Malaysia. As if that wasn’t enough, the ruling government has been exerting its authority over both mainstream and new media outlets to make sure they depict the government well.
The government has a say in media ownership and therefore may influence editorial appointments and decisions. It may issue directives on news coverage of sensitive issues, at times on a daily basis and it can can threaten not to renew annual publication licences. This kind of behaviour is not limited to Najib’s government.
A recent example of such control was reported by Malaysiakini on April 13, 2011, which reported that TV stations under the government-linked media conglomerate Media Prima had been ordered not to broadcast footage of the opposition’s nightly speeches in the run-up to the Sarawak elections.
These speeches had been drawing capacity crowds, an unprecedented showing in this state which has previously been dominated by the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (of which Najib’s UMNO is the leading party).
As the attacks on the Sarawak Report and Malaysiakini show, online media outlets aren’t exempt. Intimidation of staff, raids and seizure of computers, interrogation of editors and reporters, barring of online reporters from functions and press conferences — in addition to the occasional cyber attack — are commonplace.
All of this leaves online media in Malaysia — which urgently needs a free media — as another tool of control, where political voices and the development of democracy is stifled, than an avenue for free expression. Just like the old media.
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