Blogger jailing backfires on Malaysian government

After country's Internal Security Act is used to imprison a blog editor, a newspaper reporter, and an opposition lawmaker, censorship watchdogs and parliament members cry foul.

If the Malaysian government had hoped that the recent detention of controversial blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin would quell the country's vociferous blogger community, it may need to look elsewhere.

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Bloggers, civil-rights groups, nongovernment organizations, and politicians from both sides of the camp have stepped out to condemn the detention of the founder and editor of the blocked Malaysia Today news portal . Raja Petra was detained earlier this month for two years under Malaysia's Internal Security Act, which permits detention without trial.

Raja Petra, in addition to Sin Chew Daily newspaper reporter Tan Hoon Cheng and opposition lawmaker Teresa Kok, were arrested September 12. While Kok and Tan were subsequently released, Raja Petra was remanded in a two-year detention at the Kamunting ISA detention center in Perak state. He also faces charges of sedition and criminal defamation for linking Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife to the murder of a Mongolian woman.

The ISA is a security law, inherited from the British colonial government, specifically to fight against communist terrorists. Civil-rights groups, politicians, and various international bodies have condemned the use of the ISA against bloggers and members of the media.

Zaid Ibrahim, appointed a minister after the March 2008 elections to oversee legal affairs and judicial reform, resigned from the prime minister's cabinet in protest of the arrests.

Galvanizing effect
Various groups and bloggers have been attempting to garner international support against the incarceration of the Malaysia Today editor.

According to blogger Jeff Ooi, who was voted into parliament during the country's March election, Raja Petra's detention will galvanize the country's blogger community to further resist any perceived injustice, corruption, and abuse of power.

In a phone interview with ZDNet Asia, Penang-based Ooi said the government's use of the ISA on bloggers signaled that it has lost the cyberspace battle, resorting to oppressive security laws to silence growing online dissent.

"The government has lost the plot on how best to handle Raja Petra," he said. "For the government to invoke the ISA means that they can't fast-track the legal process, which includes his sedition and criminal defamation cases, to stop Raja Petra."

On the effect on bloggers, Ooi added: "Malaysia has lost a voice of dissent, and it does send a chilling message to other bloggers (who) are asking, 'who is next'? As we move toward freedom of expression, we are now pegged back by the government's action against prominent bloggers like Raja Petra."

Ooi concedes that some bloggers, especially the younger, less experienced ones, may be intimidated by the government crackdown. "But the committed and more matured bloggers won't be," he said. "They will carry on the struggle. The Malaysian blogging community remains committed to fight against injustice, corruption, and government excesses."

He added that he will speak out in support Raja Petra when the parliament meets again in mid-October, both in his position as a member of Parliament and a fellow blogger: "I hope to speak at overseas events to highlight the unjust treatment of Raja Petra, and the way the government is acting against bloggers."

Asked if he feared facing similar ISA charges over his blog posts, Ooi said, "If Raja Petra and the reporter can be arrested, I don't think I'm immune to this possibility. However, the government's actions won't deter me; I will continue to write without fear or favor, as always."

Global criticism
The Kuala Lumpur-based Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) also condemned Raja Petra's detention, calling it a "clear abuse of an archaic law." Its executive director, V. Gayathry, said in a statement that the current administration is using the ISA "to safeguard its shaky position."

The CIJ further expressed its concern that Raja Petra's detention would send "a chilling message" to other bloggers, discourage future whistle-blowers from exposing any future wrongdoing, and dampen the fervor of public discussion on critical issues.

The government's action has also raised the ire of international watchdog organizations, such as the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), which noted that the blogger's detention sent an alarming message to all critics of the government that dissent will not be tolerated.

"In a time of political instability, a free media is all the more crucial to ensure a proper democratic process," the IFJ Asia-Pacific said in a statement. "Far from setting an example in the region, Malaysia is hurtling down an antidemocratic and authoritarian path." The watchdog asked that the government release Raja Petra, and "cease using the ISA to clamp down on journalism and free expression in Malaysia."

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said online commentators should not be jailed because of their articles. "A two-year jail term imposed at the government's sole discretion against one of its known critics is cause for real concern. We call on the home minister to overturn this sentence immediately," Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator from the CPJ, said in a statement:

Lee Min Keong is a freelance IT writer for ZDNet Asia based in Malaysia.

 

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