A new leash of virtual life

MARCH 17 — The battle line is apparently being drawn by the Malaysian government in the context of the popularity that is being enjoyed by news portals that try to provide news and also views that normally do not see the light of day in the mainstream media owing to government control and ownership. 

The writing on the virtual wall is that the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) may be amended so as to empower the Malaysian Multimedia and Communications Commission (MCMC) to regulate closely news portals and blogs — even though such action violates the guarantee of no Internet censorship that was made when Mahathir’s Multimedia Super Corridor became the buzzword in the 1990s. 

It appears that the federal government is taking a leaf out of Singapore’s book where news portals and blogs are made to register with the authorities. This is no surprise as the Malaysian government has a penchant for emulating bad examples from elsewhere. 

In a sense, the battleground has shifted from the mainstream media, which generally has been domesticated by the government over the years, to online newspapers that are hitherto relatively independent and critical of the government of the day. 

All this emerges at a time when the political hegemony and legitimacy of the ruling elite comes under heavy fire from concerned Malaysians and civil society particularly with regards to the scandalous 1MDB. 

It would appear that the reported endeavour to amend the CMA is a concerted attempt on the part of the government to avoid at all costs that proverbial elephant in the room. 

The recent shutdown of The Malaysian Insider (TMI) is arguably the outcome of the dry run of the powers that be unleashing their wrath upon those they consider too critical of the government in their reporting and expression of opinions. 

In other words, this is somewhat a preview to the supposed amendments to the CMA...although TMI was closed by its owner, citing commercial reasons for doing so. This shutdown came on the heels of 52 new websites being blocked by the government. 

Additionally, the public outcry and sadness over the demise of TMI suggest that this portal in particular and other alternative news portals generally are very much sought after by many concerned Malaysians, especially among the young.

This is especially so when much of the mainstream media has been spurned by many people because of their inclination to provide only the government’s narrative, no matter how untruthful it can be in some cases. 

Like many other news portals, TMI provided a vital space, nay sanctuary, for creative, thoughtful and energetic writers and reporters to write about things that they felt would make a difference especially in a society where to be different and liberal is frowned upon by, and causes jitters to, the powers that be. 

Indeed, TMI as an entity paid a high price for having championed the right of the citizenry to gain access to information of public and national importance and also the valued principles of transparency and accountability. 

The planned amendments to the CMA are indeed a governmental licence to control ideas and information that may be inimical to the interests of the powers that be. It is as crass a censorship as the KDN permit for print media whereby the application of a permit can be rejected, while the permit already held can be suspended or revoked according to the discretion of the sitting government. 

These changes to the Act would obviously make legal and institutionalise cyber space thought-policing and crass censorship that are antithetical to democratic values of freedom, justice and accountability. In many ways, this complements the licensing of print media, a reinforcing of the censorship regime. 

Developments such as this patently do not contribute to the reinforcement of democratic institutions that are required by a nation that aspires to be developed and industrialised as envisaged by Malaysia’s political leaders not too long ago. If anything, the present country’s leadership is unabashedly rolling back much of the treasured democratic values especially over the years. 

Thus, the leashing of online publications not only constitutes the transgression of media freedom; it also violates the citizenry’s freedom of expression and democratic rights. 

Concerned Malaysians must be acutely aware what all these developments, if not adequately arrested, would lead us to. 

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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