“Malaysians have been able to reclaim their rhetoric online” – An interview with Ghislaine Lewis

Malaysia is in the midst of large-scale corruption case involving high ranking government officials, including Prime Minister Najib Razak, foreign governments and multinational banks. How does a money laundering scandal play out in a country with a highly concentrated and state-owned media market and what is the role of social media in fostering critical discourse? In an interview with 2016 CGCS visiting scholar Till Waescher, Ghislaine L. Lewis, lecturer in journalism at Monash University and 2016 Annenberg-Oxford Media Policy Summer Institute participant, explains how, in the wake of the scandal, international media coverage and social media use have opened new discursive spaces while the government tries to regain control over the online sphere.

In part due to strained race relations, Malaysia has cultivated a ‘Culture of Silence’ when it comes to discussing controversial topics in the public realm. Explain how this culture works and how social media can subvert the silence.

Article 10 of Malaysia’s constitution protects freedom of expression, however, there are several other laws that have been used to curtail expression, including the Sedition Act (1948) and the Printing Presses and Publications Act (1984). The Sedition Act criminalizes speech that would incite contempt against the government or disharmony between the racial factions in the country while the Printing Presses and Publications Act controls the media landscape through the licensing of media companies.

In 2015, 91 people were arrested or investigated for seditious acts, including human rights activists, journalists and politicians. Many of these “seditious acts” are criticisms of the government, and are frequently deemed as anti-Muslim criticism. Malay Muslims account for about 60% of Malaysia’s population and the coalition government for the past 59 years has been led by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). The Malaysian government contends that seditious speech can destabilize the country. As a result, the laws ensure that there is limited government criticism in the traditional media sphere. Critics have found ways to circumvent these laws in online spaces, especially on social media.

The government through its regulatory body, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, has vowed not to censor the Internet and speech online. However, they have blocked online news agencies and have also censored and threatened private citizens on social media platforms for publishing what the Commission has deemed as unverified information or threats to national security.  This censorship both offline and online has ensured the culture of silence in the country.

On August 1, 2016 Malaysia’s National Security Council Act was implemented to tackle the growing threat of terrorism. It gives a council headed by Prime Minister Najib Razak sweeping powers to order the police to conduct searches and uphold arrests without warrants, enforce curfews in areas deemed security risks and limit protests. Critics of this new law argue that it may violate human rights and incite fear in those willing to criticize the government.

 

Between 1948 and 1984 a number of laws were passed with the intent to uphold security in Malaysia. What is the legacy of laws like the Sedition Act, the Internal Security Act or the Official Secrets Act and what role do they play for regulating media content in the present day?

Malaysia is a fascinating case study of a tightly controlled traditional media scape coexisting with a moderately free online media space. Malaysia ranked 146 out 180 countries in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index. It also has a very concentrated media landscape where most media outlets are owned by the governing parties or their proxies. Through this complex network of ownership the government has tried to suppress the information available in the public sphere. On top of this media concentration, these laws regulating critical speech and national security all have an adverse effect on freedom of expression and media freedom in Malaysia. Censorship and mediated politics are seen as a necessary evil in the country as the government seeks to achieve its national development goals. While media content in the country is heavily regulated and manipulated, in the past 18 months, we’ve seen several international media organizations including The Sarawak Report, The Wall Street Journal and The Australian Broadcasting Corporation breach the culture of silence to report on political and financial scandals involving the highest echelons of the Malaysian government.

 

Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is currently accused of corruption and defrauding the government, once described the Internet and social media “as a platform to promote unity” and described the role of the government to “prevent it from being hijacked.” What did he mean by that and how does this relate to growing criticism against the Prime Minister?
Prime Minister Najib Razak has acknowledged that the Internet and social media are unifying platforms, describing them as necessary for the movement of ideas, goods, and services as Malaysia seeks to achieve its 2020 vision of becoming a high-income country. However, the prime minister also recognizes the vast influence online media has on public opinion. He has blamed social media for disseminating slander and called for stricter controls online. Much of this has to do with the criticism the government faces in the online sphere. With the growing powers of the Malaysia Communications and Multimedia Commission, there is a legitimate fear that the Internet will eventually be controlled in the same vein as the traditional media.

 

Have social networking sites such as Twitter led to culture of dissent? What is the significance of social media discourse in Malaysia – especially in the aftermath of the 1MDB scandal?

With government corruption under scrutiny, a depressed economy, and growing frustration among minority groups, social media has become a useful tool for Malaysians to voice their dissent while usurping the barriers of traditional media. Online many Malaysians have been able to reclaim the rhetoric that is often suppressed or discussed from the margins, pulling it into an open and active public space. With The Wall Street Journals’ recent release of an even more in-depth analysis of the mismanagement of the state run investment fund, 1MDB, and the corruption in Malaysia, the conversation about government accountability has raged on social media with critics calling for more government transparency and the removal of Prime Minister Najib Razak.

 

It appears the Malaysian government is worried about discussions on social media and has even established a ‘Twitter Police.’ What is your assessment of these monitoring instruments? What are the effects on free speech when government officials single out dissidents and publicly ask them to self-censor themselves?

Given the recent attacks in many of Southeast Asian countries and an increasingly fearful global community, surveillance has become the norm. However, with this new norm, Malaysia’s democratic values continue to erode with the implementation of invasive and sometimes authoritarian monitoring instruments like the “Twitter Police.” Since July, the online presence of Malaysia’s Police Cyber Response Center appears to have tempered, however, such groups are very effective in limiting free speech online. While some are willing to be silenced, there are many young activists who have used social media to point out political corruption and question the governmental decision-making process and in return try to uphold the country’s democratic values. When dissidents like the cartoonist Fahmi Reza  have been singled out by these online monitoring groups, I think it helps to propel and give traction activists’ movement and ideologies. This stimulates an awareness and moves online grassroots movements’ offline. On the other hand, it also serves as a warning tool to ensure that Malaysians are more cautious about their speech online.

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