Malaysia’s LGBT community put on alert for online infiltration

  • Community tipped off that TV station doing ‘exposé’ may infiltrate their ranks online
  • Fears that coverage may seek only to incite hatred of LGBT community

MALAYSIA’S lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community has been put on alert that a mainstream television station working on an exposé may attempt to infiltrate their online hangouts – which may not be a problem in itself, except for the near witch-hunt by certain elements in the Government and mainstream media to portray the community in the worst possible light.
 
On Facebook (FB), a member of the organizing committee of the annual Seksualiti Merdeka LGBT rights festival said that they had heard from a “trustworthy ally” that a mainstream TV station would be looking into social networking apps on mobile phones and the Web, especially those that offer personal dating services that cater to the LGBTIQ (LGBT + intersexed/ questioning) community.
 
The TV company would be hiring people to infiltrate these channels, disguising themselves as members of the LGBT community looking for dates, said the note by the Seksualiti Merdeka organizing committee, also posted on the FB page of committee member Hazri Haili.
 
“Seksualiti Merdeka fears that the resulting conversations and photos between the moles and LGBTIQ individuals may be shown in a television program that portrays LGBTIQs in a negative light,” they said.
 
“While Seksualiti Merdeka supports the right to freedom of expression, we believe that the intentions of the producers of this television exposé are negative in nature and the results may cause more harm than good,” they added.
 
Their fears may not be unfounded – in Malaysia, most of the mainstream media is either directly or indirectly owned by the state. Investigative journalism, while not uncommon, has the tendency to go for sensationalism or to further the state’s own aims or propaganda. Some of the more respectable outlets may explore social issues, but coverage of corruption or abuse of power is largely left to independent online news portals like The Malaysian Insider, Malaysiakini and Free Malaysia Today.
 
LGBT rights have always been a contentious issue in Muslim-majority Malaysia, but the community came under greater siege in recent times, with the Education Ministry holding seminars and even publishing a handbook for parents and teachers on how to “identify” homosexual school-children.
 
The handbook, panned and made fun of by Malaysia’s online community, said gays could be identified by the fact they were usually physically fit; liked wearing V-necked t-shirts and tight, lightly-coloured clothes; and enjoyed spending time with members of their own gender.
 
Deputy Education Minister Mohd Puad Zarkashi, while denying he endorsed the handbook, was quoted by Malay-language newspaper Sinar Harian as saying the exposure of “symptoms” of gays and lesbian was the best approach to address the “unhealthy phenomenon” among students.
 
The persecution and intimidation of the LGBT community also seems to have a strong political element. Seksualiti Merdeka (Sexual Independence) had been organizing its annual festival peacefully since 2008 with no hassle until earlier this year, when the festival was banned.
 
Certain media outlets went on a rampage, portraying the festival as an attempt to promote and proselytize homosexuality, and even as an outright orgy or a “free sex party.”
 
The festival actually compromises workshops, forums, talks, and performances, and has the support of non-government organizations (NGOs) such as the Malaysian Bar Council, human rights watchdog Suaram, Empower, sexual health advocacy group PT Foundation, the United Nations, Amnesty International and various individuals.
 
Among the people who were supposed to speak at the festival this year was Datuk S. Ambiga, who leads the ‘Bersih’ coalition of pro-democracy advocates and NGOs calling for free and fair elections in Malaysia.
 
Bersih has successfully organized a number of street marches and assemblies attended by hundreds of thousands of ordinary Malaysians that has put the ruling coalition under pressure to reform election laws and procedures.
 
For this, Ambiga has been demonized by ministers and Barisan Members of Parliament (MPs), with one lawmaker hinting that she should be hanged for treason.
 
Malaysia’s LGBT community put on alert for online infiltrationDon’t feel persecuted
 
With the community largely shunned or demonized by society and the Government, most LGBTIQs find solace and a chance to socialize via the Internet and other types of technology. In their note, the Seksualiti Merdeka organizing committee said that “in the past 20 years, the Internet has provided many LGBTIQ organizations and individuals with platforms to express our thoughts and identities in a relatively safe environment.”
 
While saying that ICT plays a semi-important role in his own life, 29-year old journalist Hafidz Baharom (pic) concurred. “Well, when you have a society that is shy to meet and ask for a date in person due to what they see as discrimination, then you tend to thrive in cyberspace instead, since there's infinite room to prosper."
 
Hafidz is pretty much an ordinary Malaysian male – educated at national schools and a local university graduate, raised in the predominantly Muslim populated city of Shah Alam, 13 miles southwest of the capital of Kuala Lumpur. He “came out of the closet” in 2008, when he told his parents that he was gay.
 
The biggest challenge then, was telling “the people who are supposed to know you throughout your entire life up to that point, that there was something they didn't know or didn't want to acknowledge,” he told Digital News Asia (DNA).
 
“After coming out, however, the greatest challenge would be knowing there's a lot of misconceptions and misunderstanding that makes people fear or hate what you are,” he added.
 
Coming out posed its own challenges, and did affect his professional life working as a reporter for an online news  portal – but the latter was not in a negative way.
 
“In fact, more people asked about being gay and what being gay means,” Hafidz said. “Some former co-workers before this even said they thought of some relatives who were gay but had no idea how to approach the subject altogether."
 
In fact, despite the anti-LGBTIQ shenanigans by politicians and certain media outlets, Hafidz said he honestly doesn’t feel persecuted.
 
“Having personally met people who represent the Government in totality, politicians from both sides of the aisle, I can't say I've been discriminated or fouled or even manhandled in any way due to my sexual orientation. 

“Of course, there will be the occasional politician or minister who says something you consider offensive, but the thing is, most of the LGBT community agree with him -- particularly the Malay Muslims,” he said.
 
Hafidz takes that in stride. “They're politicians. You can vent in a blog, report it as news, highlight it to the media or even just let it slide. There is not exactly a right or wrong response to it in this country when both sides don't truly acknowledge who you are.”
 
Malaysia’s LGBT community put on alert for online infiltrationLegal recourse
 
Being invisible is just one aspect; the other is having their constitutional rights unacknowledged or even trampled on. Aston Paiva (pic), a lawyer who sometimes assists the LoyarBurok socio-political blog and civil rights advocacy group in cases of public interest, notes that in Malaysia, the Constitution guarantees certain rights to all citizens regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.

“All persons are guaranteed the right to privacy, dignity, freedom of expression, freedom of thought and conscience, and equal protection of the law,” he said. “What protection is afforded to a straight person is similarly afforded to those who are from the LGBT community.”
 
“It is crucial and critical for us remember that like race, skin color and sex, sexual orientation and gender identity is neither chosen nor can it be changed. And it is precisely for that reason that constitutional protection is afforded to those from the LGBT community,” he added.
 
However, the media has a role to play as the Fourth Estate, and thus has rights too.
 
“The media company would arguably say that it is doing this for the public interest. As long as a media company is not acting maliciously, it is entitled to put into the public domain, information which has been reasonably checked and sourced, as part of a discussion of matters of serious public concern,” Aston said via email.

“However, the media company must act responsibly – that is, there must be a fair balance between the right of the media company in disseminating a matter of public concern and the reputation of the individuals involved. Failure to act responsibly could result in a suit for defamation,” he added.
 
If the media oversteps its bounds and ignores journalistic principles to portray specific members of the LGBTIQ community in a negative light, they could sue the relevant media company for defamation, Aston noted, advising them and the rest of civil society to hold a demonstration outside the office of the media company stating their dissatisfaction and insisting that the media company “stop this shameful witch hunt.”

[The passage above was amended slightly from its original for greater accuracy -- ED]

“Our country was not founded on the vilification and stigmatization of minorities,” he added.
 
He also stressed that the authorities must also act against the media company in question if it had breached any laws in the country in pursuing this story. “It is imperative that the enforcement authorities investigate the conduct of the media company and consider any breaches of the Penal Code or the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, and for the Public Prosecutor to prosecute individuals accordingly,” he added.
 
However, Aston also acknowledged that anal sex and oral sex remain illegal under the Penal Code in Malaysia. “This applies to both consenting adult homosexuals and heterosexuals, even when the act in question takes place in private.
 
“Sexual relations between males (liwat) and sexual relations between females (musahaqah) are also penalized under Syariah (Islamic law) criminal enactments. The media companies could argue that they are pursuing such investigative journalism to expose such ‘criminal activities’,” he said.
 
This then begs a bigger question, said Aston: Are such laws constitutional in the first place?
 
“The sexual relations of two consenting adults in private are not the business of the state or any other member of society. Numerous courts across the Commonwealth have declared such laws unconstitutional,” he said.

“Cases should be filed in our courts contending that these laws impinge upon the privacy and dignity of individuals, and the courts should hold steadfast to their constitutional duties and declare these laws unconstitutional,” he added.
 
Advice for the LGBTIQ community
 
Meanwhile, Seksualiti Merdeka also had some advice for the community in their note, asking them to exercise care and vigilance when interacting with strangers online.
 
“We urge you to employ discretion and common sense practices:

  • Don’t give out your vital personal information to total strangers;
  • Don’t share your photos, especially ones that may compromise your identity;
  • Don’t meet a person you have just met online in a secluded area;
  • If the person's conversation is making you uncomfortable, seem too probing, or is pressuring you into meeting or revealing certain information, stop interacting with the person immediately.

If the unknown TV station does pursue this story in an unprofessional and sensationalized manner to incite hatred and vilification of the LGBTIQ community, it would be only the latest salvo.
 
However, the community can also take heart in the knowledge that any attempt to portray them as being interested in only “orgies” and “free sex parties” would ring hollow, given that the latest sex scandal to hit Malaysia and Singapore involves a heterosexual couple posting pictures and videos of themselves involved in “the act” on their blog.

 
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