Can Malaysia have a truly free internet if it bans "undesirable content" and registers political blogs and websites?
This statement was originally published on netmerdeka.org and Facebook.com/CIJ.MY on 16 May 2016.
As the Malaysian Parliament reconvenes its meeting this 16 May 2016, we, a coalition of civil society organisations, urge all elected legislators to reject the expected amendments to the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 that will further compromise the rights of individuals to freedom of expression. These amendments are being discussed and planned amidst increasing public criticism of the ruling government through digital platforms and tools. We are concerned that the proposed amendments are politically motivated with the sole purpose of imposing legal restrictions to the public’s right to access to political information and to freedom of expression.
The government announced plans to tighten the regulations for the Internet since 2015, among others to register political blogs and websites, and to increase penalties for offences related to undesirable content. It is believed that the amended provisions would give the Internet regulatory body – the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) – more powers to take down online content without proper oversight.
These changes, if introduced and passed by Parliament, [will be in effect] together with the amendments to restrict bail for all offences under Section 124 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which has been used against activists and the media. Both the amendments will have the combined effect of entrenching censorship in an environment already heavily regulated for the media and publishing.
Need for public consultation
It is regrettable that the government has done little consultation with stakeholders, proving yet again the absence of political will for open and democratic law making processes in Malaysia. Civil society stands to be most affected by the proposed amendments as we constitute the majority of the internet population, and as such, it is critical that our views and voices are duly recognised and reflected.
We agree that the laws governing the internet need to be reviewed for them to have stronger provisions for privacy and protections for freedom of expression. But these are not being prioritised; instead we see a pattern of reviewing laws to extend the powers of the executive to conveniently target media, political opponents and individual critics.
Regulation a barrier to business
According to industry-led research in 13 countries including in Asia, increased regulatory requirements would act as a significant barrier to investment. Specifically, 79% of investors are uncomfortable with investing in countries where freedom of expression is restricted or highly regulated. 62% of investors were wary of requirements on OTT content platform providers to comply to content restricting requirements; and 77% of investors expressed discomfort in investing in internet businesses that would be compelled to remove content without a court order. Malaysia’s internet economy is a growing industry – arbitrary and broad laws present serious threats to its progress.
MCMC: Focus on support, not censorship
We believe that bodies like the MCMC should not have discretion to block content; instead, its actions should be governed by its ten policy objectives, including creating a vibrant civil community, establishing Malaysia as a major global centre and hub for communications and multimedia information and content services, and creating a robust applications environment for end users. Decisions to restrict freedom of information and expression should follow due process of the law and international standards and norms. It should be clear, the least restrictive, necessary and proportionate. This at minimum, requires a court order.
Defend internet freedom
We call on all stakeholders to defend internet freedom and to keep it free from arbitrary and abusive regulations. We must remind the powers that be that Malaysia committed to no censorship of the internet when the industry started and any policy change must be done with thorough negotiation and consultation with all civil society.
Jointly issued by coalition members:
Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), Malaysia
Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (EMPOWER)
Malaysia’s Human Rights Society (HAKAM)
Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM)
Amnesty International, Malaysia
Lawyers for Liberty