The following article was first published in Malaysiakini on 26th Jan.

by Steven Gan

Many had expected Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak to be more stringent in enforcing controls a la Dr Mahathir Mohamad over the media. Few expected that he would be worse than Mahathir.

Yesterday, the Home Ministry announced that the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) – the mother of all censorship laws – would be amended to cover online content. Its secretary-general Mahmood Adam said the changes will plug loopholes in the law.

There is no doubt that Malaysiakini and other online media have gained from the ‘loophole’, derived from Mahathir’s pledge not to censor the Internet in 1995 as he kick-started the Multimedia Super Corridor project.

Since his retirement in 2004, Mahathir has himself turned blogger.

Free of censorship, the online media went on to lay the foundations for the ‘political tsunami’ in 2008, resulting in then prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi conceding that the government had “lost the Internet war”.

While the traditional media and online media are both kept in check by some 35 laws which restrict freedom of expression in Malaysia, there is one crucial difference between the two.

The online media, unlike its print and broadcast cousins, does not need government approval to put out the news or to go back to the Home Ministry each year to renew the publishing and printing permits. It is this which keeps editors and journalists in the traditional media on a short leash.

It is likely that, should the proposed amendments become law, the online media too will be required to apply for a licence.

This will be the final nail in the coffin for press freedom. The little freedom of expression that Malaysians have enjoyed online over the past 16 years will end.

The licensing regime will enable the government to apply political pressure to the online media, and worse, allow the all-powerful home minister to declare news websites illegal. Don’t forget that, under the PPPA, the minister’s decision cannot be challenged in court.

This is why Najib is worse than Mahathir when it comes to media operations. Instead of freeing up the traditional media by doing away with the licensing regime under the PPPA, Najib and his cousin, Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, are taking the regressive step of controlling the online media.

Singapore-style Internet censorship

The timing and the speed of the amendment – it is expected to be tabled in Parliament by March – shows that the government has the upcoming general election in mind.

This proposal comes hot on the heels of similar curbs imposed by Singapore on its fledgling online media.

Only two weeks ago, the Singapore government announced a litany of restrictions on political website The Online Citizen, often dubbed as the island-state’s version of Malaysiakini.

As part of the new requirements, The Online Citizen must declared itself a political organisation. This will bar its team of volunteers from writing, reporting, analysing or commenting about the elections expected to be called as early as March.

It is clear that the Malaysian government is taking a leaf from Singapore’s Internet censorship playbook.

The move to amend the PPPA to include the online media must be defeated. Otherwise, Malaysia will return to the bad old days when the government had complete monopoly on truth.

STEVEN GAN is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Malaysiakini, an online media organisation launched in 1999.

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