The general election campaign period in Malaysia has triggered what independent news site MalaysiaKini is calling “China-style censorship.” Over the last two weeks, at least two news sites, Harakah Daily and MalaysiaKini, have suffered from DDoS attacks and connection disruption at the ISP level. MalaysiaKini reports that its Twitter accounts have been hacked and pages on its video site, KiniTV, are being blocked by certain ISPs.
On May 5, Malaysians will vote in a highly contested general election that many say could be the closest in the country’s history. Should opposition candidate Anwar Ibrahim succeed in contesting incumbent Najib Tun Razak, it would bring an end to over fifty years of single-party rule that has been in effect since the country won independence from the England in 1957.
Launched in 1999, MalaysiaKini is among the most read news sites in the country and has received awards for its coverage from the International Press Institute, Reporters without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists. With tension increasing on the ground over a tight political race and alleged manipulation of electoral results, their work has been key in election monitoring and coverage. This is not MalaysiaKini’s first experience with such problems; the organization also suffered attacks that left the site offline during general elections in 2008.
Harakah Daily has experienced similar problems. In addition DDoS attacks, the news organization’s IT team has discovered that customers from a majority of local ISPs have encountered disruption in connecting to the site. Oiwan Lam, a co-author of this post, is currently in Kuala Lumpur as an election observer and was unable to access Harakah Daily on Saturday, though was able to connect later in the day.
Interference by some (but not all) ISPs
Users of ISPs including TM Broadband, Unifi, Streamyx, Maxis, Celcom and Digi have complained of unusually slow speed when accessing the Harakah Daily portal. But both sites have reported that their pages are readily accessible on YES4G and Time Internet ISPs. A pageview chart created by Malaysiakini also revealed that connections were being ‘dropped’ every now and then when using these ISPs.
Executives at both news sites have spoken strongly against the actions of these ISPs. Zulkifli Sulong, Harakah Daily's Editor-in-Chief, said:
If the matter is true, such dirty tactics must be stopped. ISPs should focus on their job to deliver the best service to its customers any desired websites without restriction.
Premesh Chandran, CEO of MalaysiaKini, noted that national law obligates ISPs to keep their networks open.
In line with official government policy and the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, telecommunications providers such as TM have a duty and obligation to ensure that their systems are not used to censor the Internet.
Various advocacy groups have pointed out that Malaysian law explicitly protects the open Internet.
Both organizations are working to ensure that even if their sites are blocked, users will still be able to access their content via alternative means. Currently, Harakah Daily has posted all current news items on its Facebook Fan page. Malaysiakini has set up several mirror sites to prevent the complete blocking of their site during the Malaysia general election on May 5.
General increase in online controls
As the government faces a possible loss of power, online censorship and surveillance seem to be an increasing trend in the country. In a report on the commercialization of digital spyware issued by Citizen Lab, Malaysia appears among 36 countries where the remote monitoring and surveillance solutions software known as FinFisher has been used. The report includes a sample of FinFisher surveillance malware that appears to have been specifically crafted for use during the election period. Reaching users in the form of an email attachment, and written in Malay, the malicious program is disguised as election-related information.
Citizen Lab writes:
While we cannot make definitive statements about the actors behind the booby-trapped candidate list, the contents of the document suggest that the campaign targets Malay speakers who are interested in Malaysia´s hotly contested 5 May 2013 General Elections. We trust that both domestic and international elections monitoring officials and watchdog groups will investigate to determine whether the integrity of the campaign and electoral process may have been compromised.
US-based campaign organization Access is seeking to put pressure on the government to stop the political interference with the Internet. The group has organized a petition directed at the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) demanding that the government agency restore access to all websites during and following the upcoming elections.
Global Voices Advocacy urges concerned users to share this story widely and to sign the petition to the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission.