Malaysian government told to stop playing ‘Big Brother’ to media

Logos of the news websites TV Pertiwi, MalaysiaNow, and UtusanTV that were blocked in Malaysia.

Media groups have reminded Malaysian authorities about their commitment to uphold freedom of expression after several news websites have been blocked over the past two months.

The MalaysiaNow news website was inaccessible for two days in June. UtusanTV's website was blocked on August 7, a few days before state elections. Malaysia Today and a blog managed by former MP Wee Choo Keong were also blocked in August. News website TV Pertiwi was blocked after the media outlet refused to remove several videos flagged by authorities as inappropriate.

The blocking of these websites is linked to the directives issued by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) which earlier warned that it would prohibit inflammatory content on race, religion, and royalty ahead of the state elections.

TV Pertiwi said it refused to comply with MCMC’s order after the latter failed to cite the objectionable content contained in the videos marked by the agency for removal.

TV Pertiwi believes that the public has the right to receive balanced, unbiased, and objective information and news about events occurring within society and the country without being tied to any partisan political tendencies.

Additionally, the freedom of the media and the expression of opinions or differing viewpoints should be celebrated as fundamental elements of human rights and as a hallmark of democratic practice on the progressive path towards informed and knowledgeable citizenship.

On August 29, several senior editors released a joint statement urging the government to stop playing “Big Brother” to the media.

What is more worrying is the fact that much of the so-called ‘offending’ content is mere reports and opinion pieces deemed critical of the government.

The present government came to power on the promise to allow a free flow of information and a vibrant free press.

The complaints by media practitioners that their sites have been blocked are on the rise. It is an unhealthy trend which must be stopped immediately.

We believe that the regulatory body has other priorities, thus blocking websites is not one of them.

Gerakan Media Merdeka, a press freedom watchdog, asserted that “any forms of online news or legitimate opinions clearly should not be subjected to such censorship.” Civil society network Bersih pointed out the dangers of suppressing information.

If crackdown is deemed driven by partisan calculation, the suppressed voices will only grow stronger in under-currents, posing a greater danger to inclusion and stability.

A key cornerstone of democracy is free and fair access to public media by all political parties but sadly Malaysia has never witnessed such fair play during our elections.

In response, the MCMC insisted that the blocking of some websites was “not to stifle freedom of the press but to ensure that information is disseminated responsibly and without the spread of slander or misinformation.” The Commission added:

Some news outlets have been found intentionally spreading misleading information or publishing inaccurate content, which can harm community harmony.

With the vast amount of information available online, it becomes challenging to distinguish between fact and fiction. This poses a significant threat to societal harmony, as misleading information can be easily propagated and false narratives can be created.

The MCMC assured the media that it is open to dialogue “to address concerns and issues related to freedom of expression.”

Zaid Malek, director of Lawyers for Liberty, warned against MCMC's claim that blocking news websites is justified:

Censoring speech and news as “fake news” will stifle discourse on issues of public importance for fear of prosecution, rendering the right to free speech nugatory. Allowing the government to dictate the “truth” would allow them to bury any news that it finds politically unfavourable.

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