Singapore’s online media rules spur protests, Malaysians brace themselves: Page 2 of 3
By A. Asohan June 4, 2013
Tale of two struggling governments
Just as Malaysia had its ‘no Internet censorship’ guarantee when it rolled out the Multimedia Super Corridor project (now known as MSC Malaysia) in the late 1990s, Singapore had promised a ‘light touch’ policy for the Internet, first introduced by then Communications Minister George Yeo around the same time.
But both governments have been struggling to contain a flood of independent and alternative views being promulgated on blogs, independent news portals and, increasingly in the last few years, social media networks.
Both governments have been testing the waters to see if such freedom can be reined in. In 2009, independent news portal The Malaysian Insider broke the news that Shabery’s predecessor, Dr Rais Yatim, had instructed his ministry to study the feasibility of putting an Internet filter to block ‘undesirable websites’ much in the same manner as China's aborted ‘Green Dam’ software.
The move came on the back of proposals to register bloggers, but was finally dropped after a public outcry, although there was suspicion a year later that the Najib Administration was trying to revive the idea.
Even as recently as last year, Rais again attempted similar controls when he proposed setting up a social media council to act as the equivalent of a media council for social networks. That move did not find traction and came to naught.
The Malaysian Government finally got its way, of sorts, when it quietly gazetted an amendment to the Evidence Act 1950, an amendment also known as Section 114A, under which the owner of any site or device is presumed guilty and has to fight to prove his innocence if there are any seditious or defamatory comments posted on said site or device.
Civil society advocates said the law not only stifles freedom of expression, but may adversely affect all companies in Internet-related business, including those providing network and Wi-Fi services. That law was passed despite massive online protests and a petition of 3,300 signatures protesting it being handed to Parliament.
In Singapore, it was not much different. In 2007, the Government announced that it was setting up an Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society. Ultimately, even that hewed to the light-touch policy.
In March 2012 however, the Singapore Government formed what it called the Media Convergence Review Panel to ostensibly “study the issues impacting consumers, industry and society in a converged media environment, and to make recommendations on how to address the emerging challenges.”
“The objectives of the review are to support industry growth, empower and protect consumers, and foster a cohesive and inclusive society,” the Government said.
After a final meeting, the Panel came out with its report last November that ultimately led to the MDA’s new ruling.
Noting that the Panel had said that local media players were increasingly vulnerable to online competition from overseas media service providers which were not subject to local regulatory regimes, Singaporean journalism professor Cherian George said that “the Panel could have argued for licensing and other rules to be significantly modernised in order to help local print and broadcast players compete with freer online media.
“Instead, the thrust of its report goes in the opposite direction, suggesting that large online players be subject to similar regulations as traditional media,” he wrote on his blog.
Acknowledging that some media regulation is necessary – to ensure the rights of minorities and children, for example – George argued that “what the Panel’s report glosses over is that there are international best practices for media regulation – and that Singapore is far away from them.”
George, who was an associate professor at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU)’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communications, was later denied tenure at the school, prompting protests from students and faculty members.
Increasing pressure on Malaysian media
In Malaysia, the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition won the recent general election by a slim majority of seats, while losing the popular vote for the first time since 1969.
Many of the urban seats went to the Opposition, which political observers attributed to greater political awareness engendered by their access to alternative views and news provided by online media. Just as in Singapore, most of the mainstream media organisations are directly or indirectly controlled by Barisan parties.
Many suspect this is what prompted the Communications and Multimedia Ministry to look to Singapore for regulatory inspiration. The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) was quick to respond.
“CIJ views any online licensing effort as a means to control online media and, in effect, an effort to stifle dissenting opinions,” CIJ Malaysia executive officer Masjaliza Hamzah told Digital News Asia (DNA) via email.
“Any form of online censorship, however indirect (through licensing for example), will affect access to information on media portals, currently the choice of the urban, young and middle-class reading public -- the very constituencies which contributed heavily to Barisan’s showing in the recent general election,” she said.
Masjaliza said she hoped that (Communications and Multimedia Minister) Shabery’s suggestion to study how online media can be regulated was not another step to teach Malaysians a lesson for voting for Pakatan Rakyat, the Opposition alliance.
“At best, the Minister's mulling of licensing is a cowardly idea lacking in imagination,” she said. “There is no reason to copy Singapore's move, given our neighbour's poor standing in any world press freedom ranking.”
She noted that online media enjoys strong support from Malaysians, even for portals which require subscription such as Malaysiakini.
“They are a source of news not just for those in Malaysia but also for the international community,” Masjaliza said. “Any form of licensing imposed on online media will be strongly opposed by civil society in Malaysia and the borderless online community.”
She said that Shabery’s ministry is one of two bodies responsible for upholding MSC Malaysia's Bill of Guarantee No 7, to ensure there is no censorship of the Internet. “It needs to take steps to promote the exchange rather than curb the flow of information on the Internet,” she said.
Barisan Nasional leaders have been attempting to portray online alternative media as a hotbed of lies and deception, with newly-appointed Home Minister Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi going on the warpath and warning Malaysiakini on his first official day in his new portfolio.
“You (Malaysiakini reporters) always twist statements, in fact too often. You create things which are not there. You better write the real stuff. I will monitor every word, every sentence, every paragraph and every news item in Malaysiakini. You don’t play fire with me. You always spin,” he ticked off a reporter from the portal, according to a Bernama story published on The Malaysian Insider.
Interestingly, according to media watchdog Watching the Watchdog which monitored online and offline media outlets throughout the election campaign, Bernama reports carried the greatest bias, while online media provided the most balanced coverage in terms of both quantity and quality of stories.
“CIJ believes a key contributing factor is that online media – unlike its print and broadcast counterparts – is not regulated by the state and has more room to practise independence and fairness in reporting,” Masjaliza said.
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