JAN 17 — Although the notion of access to the internet has been promoted as a human right, in Malaysia, it is internet freedoms as a human right that is more important.

Asia Centre, a Bangkok-based research institute in Special Consultative Status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (UN ECOSOC), makes this point in its latest report, Internet freedoms in Malaysia: Regulating online discourse on race, religion, and royalty.

Malaysia has made significant progress in improving internet access in the last decade. At the start of 2022, the internet penetration index in the country reached almost 90 per cent, a remarkably high percentage considering that the global rate in July 2022 was 63 per cent.

Access to the internet was first positioned as a human right in 2018 after the historical election that disrupted Barisan Nasional’s (BN) political dominance.

Democratic Action Party’s (DAP) Gobind Singh Deo, who served as Minister of Communications and Multimedia in the PH administration between May 2018 and February 2020, proposed the cabinet guarantee the right to access the internet in the Constitution.

In 2021, Umno’s Tan Sri Annuar Musa, who was Minister of Communications and Multimedia for the BN administration between August 2021 and November 2022, continued the call to make access to internet facilities a human right in tandem with basic necessities such as clothing, food and shelter.

These calls were meaningful, but the right to online freedom of expression was not mentioned, even if Article 10 of the Federal Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression. That exposed a gap in a fundamental freedom such as expressing one’s opinions freely online.

Hence, it is equally important to promote internet freedom as a human right.

As mentioned earlier, Malaysia has done exceptionally well in promoting access to the internet. Yet, the issue is not so much about access - valid a point as it is - but whether the right to freedom of expression over the internet and social media is there after gaining access.

In Malaysia, a suite of colonial era laws, which have been revised and expanded upon for six decades by successive Umno-led BN administrations, form an ecosystem of laws that hinders online freedom of expression.

Malaysia’s Federal Constitution ensures and protects fundamental human rights like freedom of speech, assembly and association (Article 10), and religion (Article 11). However, clauses from the Constitution allow for provisions in the country’s Penal Code Sedition Act, Evidence Act, Communications and Multimedia Act, limit those freedoms.

The Anti-Fake News Act, introduced by the BN government just before the 2018 elections, was revoked during the PH administration between 2018 and 2020.

Following the exit of PH, the Emergency (Essential Powers) (No.2) Ordinance 2021 that included provisions from the Anti Fake New Act was introduced and later revoked.

Although Pakatan Harapan’s victory in 2018 generated hope for improving internet freedoms by cancelling the blockage of websites and repealing the Anti-Fake News Act, its collapse in 2020 negated these advances.

Then, the subsequent Perikatan Nasional administration simply continued the six decade Umno-led BN administration ecosystem of laws to regulate freedom of expression in the digital sphere.

In 2022, PH’s inability to secure a simple majority of seats also meant that, once again, it could not improve internet freedoms. Eventually, PH formed a unity government with UMNO as one of the several component members. The MOU that anchors the unity government is set to continue this six decade legal trend.

The above ecosystem of laws impacts internet freedoms in the country since it restricts several fundamental rights on different grounds.

These developments conflict with the rights-based UN approach to the digital sphere to ensure that all citizens can maximise the opportunities from the internet. In such an environment, online freedom of expression is paramount. Therefore, even if the government improves access to the internet, curtailing online freedom of expression threatens the internet as a human right.

Since internet access as a human right should not only be limited to making digital technology widely available to the population and improving digital infrastructure, it is the responsibility of parliamentarians to advance legislation that ensures that all voices can be heard and respected, online and offline.

Additionally, tech companies must create digital platforms that protect their user’s online rights, especially freedom of expression, to ensure that fundamental rights of the Malaysian Federal Constitution are respected.

In this way, internet freedoms as a human right will make access to the digital sphere truly valuable. Unless access to the internet adopts a rights-based approach, the internet can only have a limited positive impact on advancing human rights in Malaysia.

*James Gomez is Asia Centre’s regional director. This commentary is based on the centre’s latest report ‘Internet Freedoms in Malaysia: Regulating Online Discourse on Race, Religion, and Royalty‘.

**This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.