Insecure Najib cracks down on social media, but has the damage been done?

Photo: Apa masalah/CC BY-SA 4.0

The freedoms of Malaysian citizens are being increasingly targeted by repressive government measures on communication and assembly, say human rights groups. Critics say this is part of Prime Minister Najib’s efforts to keep control of the country, but it may not be enough to shore up building opposition to his tenure.

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By Holly Reeves

“When the Internal Security Act was abolished, there was a sense of freedom,” explains long-time Malaysian activist Hishamuddin Rais. “I thought Malaysia was going in the right direction. When Najib promised to abolish the Sedition Act, I thought: “We have arrived. We are on the right path.”

Sadly that path has never materialised. In fact, as the 1MDB scandal continues to dog his reputation, Najib has pulled the reins tighter. In recent months laws have become increasingly oppressive, and victims have shifted from politicians to civil society activists to regular citizens, say activists.

In April 2016,  Minister Datuk Jailani Johari said 32 cases of misuse of the internet and new media were investigated under section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (CMA) since 2010. Allegations included “defamation” and “dissemination of false news” via the internet.

“Criminalising peaceful speech appears part of the Malaysian government’s larger effort to tighten the noose on anyone expressing political discontent,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Right Watch on the launch of a new report detailing the country’s descent into censorship.

Targeting the little man?

Take for example the case of J. Gopinath, charged with sedition in 2014 thanks to a Facebook post which he had made two years before that supposedly insulted Islam. The person who made the original post, which Gopinath said insulted his own Hindu faith, was never prosecuted but the 28-year old student got a fine of RM 5,000 (US$1,209).

“What we’re seeing is a deepening of the culture of fear in Malaysia, and this has intensified over the past two years and particularly since Prime Minister Najib has been called out by citizens and the political opposition in Malaysia about his involvement in the 1MDB financial scandal,” Robertson said.

On closer inspection, the amendments made to the Sedition Act last year seem designed to increase the government’s reach further into people’s freedoms. As such, they make it illegal to “propagate” or “cause to be published” seditious material. Agencies and officials are also able to order the deletion of material and to prohibit offenders from having access to “any electronic device.”

The 1MDB connection

The 1MBD scandal features heavily in the new report, with the rights group accusing Najib’s administration of using the Official Secrets Act for their own devices to cover-up details of the investigation. The Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) 1998 and the Peaceful Assembly Act are also frequently used against dissenters, say the rights group.

But prosecutions aside, the recent developments create a blanket of fear across the country, says the report. Just yesterday at a Bersih 4.0 rally, held by the anti-Najib ‘Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections’, a Malaysiakini reporter was punched on her shoulder, and a videographer and reporter made to delete photographs. According to news reports, a Bersih supporter also faced a tussle after, “exchanging a handshake and hug with Umno Youth executive committee member Armand Azha Abu Hanifah.”

But this is mild in comparison with the troubles of the eight activists and opposition politicians arrested and held for participating in peaceful “street protests” in Kuala Lumpur last year, say the human rights experts. This week the Federal Court ordered that they face trial under the Peaceful Assembly Act (PAA) and, if found guilty, they could face fines of RM10,000 and the three MPs could be disqualified from holding office.

“Malaysia’s blanket ban on street marches is legal overreach that betrays government paranoia about organized protests,” explains Robertson, “the government should return to the drawing board and enact a law that respects the right to peaceful assembly.”

Symptom or cause?

The question at this stage is whether the crackdown is the result of growing dissent, or whether growing dissent is fuelled by increasingly authoritarian moves from the government. It seems, as events unfurl, that the problem is inherently political. Najib may be rolling out these moves to keep a lid on discussion of his shortcomings, or attempts to replace him, but the momentum is already building. In the last 24 hours alone over 30 grassroots party activists resigned blaming a loss of faith in the leadership.

Malaysia is trying to “put the internet genie back in the bottle,” with its aggressive use of legislation, says the report, but the genie has flown. No clampdown can undo the uncertainty and damage inflicted by the revelations of the last few months.

And it is ironic, perhaps, that this crushing analysis of new media freedoms is released in the same week that the Prime Minister issues his own smartphone app for download. Citizens in some quarters have been quick to point out they don’t trust the app to have access to their mobile phone data, and based on the conclusions of the new report they shouldn’t assume any privacy or freedom in their social media accounts either.