In 2011, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak promised that Malaysia would never censor the Internet. Speaking at the first Malaysian—ASEAN Regional Bloggers Conference, Najib said: “I have no doubts whatsoever that Malaysia has one of the liveliest blogospheres in the world. And definitely one of the freest if not the most free…[former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad] made the promise to the world that Malaysia would never censor the Internet. My government is fully committed to that wisdom. We intend to keep his word.”
Four years later, beleaguered by allegations that $700 million in funds were suspiciously transferred from a Malaysian state investment fund into his personal bank account, Najib went back on that promise.
Blocking of the Sarawak Report
The UK-based news website the Sarawak Report was blocked in Malaysia on July 19, 2015 upon orders from the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC). The site remains inaccessible from within the country unless users access the site on their mobile phones or via a VPN. The MCMC ordered Malaysia’s Internet service providers to take the site down after it published news on the bank transfer allegations, though reports suggest the block has been unevenly enforced. The MCMC's rationale for their order was that the site has published “unverified information” and posed a threat to “national security.”
This is the first time Malaysia has publicly acknowledged blocking a political website, and it is particularly notable because the case strikes at the heart of political corruption within the country.
The story surrounding the suspicious bank transfer initially broke on July 2, when the Wall Street Journal and Sarawak Report published the result of an investigation into a Malaysian investment fund, 1Malaysian Development Berhad (1MDB). The investigators found that hundreds of millions of dollars had been funneled into the private accounts of Najib Razak and his wife, Rosmah Mansor.
Since then, Najib has responded assertively to the accusations, with his legal representative calling the Wall Street Journal article “political sabotage” and stating that the allegations are “neither here nor there.” Meanwhile, police have launched an investigation into the source of the leaked documents and the “possibility of a conspiracy to subvert Malaysia’s democratic process and topple the prime minister,” according to Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar. The editor of the Sarawak Report also reported being harassed and stalked by people believed to be employed by United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the ruling political party in Malaysia.
Censorship Comes Out Into the Open
The government's censorship of the Sarawak Report is remarkable both for its unapologetic execution and for its blatant political character, but it is hardly the first time that the government or its supporters have censored Malaysia's Internet—whether openly or less so. During the 2013 general election, strong evidence emerged of Malaysian ISPs throttling access to alternative news portals and pro-opposition content on YouTube. However, when confronted with this evidence, the MCMC denied that any such restrictions had been put in place and simply blamed the outages on congestion.
The following year, the BBC reported on the Malaysian Prime Minister's response to complaints about raises in the cost of basic goods and services, such as fuel and electricity—to which he responding by simply pointing out that the price of Chinese water spinach, kangkung, had lately fallen. The story went viral, spawning all manner of video parodies and image memes. Embarrassed, government ministers began to call for crackdowns on the phenomenon, only to be stymied by the government's promise that there would be no censorship of the Internet.
Or were they? Despite the promises, users soon began to share reports about difficulties they had in attempting to access the embarrassing BBC report. Investigations by Malaysian transparency NGO Sinar Project revealed that indeed, it did appear that Malaysian ISPs were blocking or throttling access to the report. Sinar Project not only meticulously documented their findings, but they even released their tools on Github to allow others to replicate their investigation. Yet, once again, the government denied all responsibility for the outages.
Given this history, it seems highly likely that the blocking of the Sarawak Report is not the first time Malaysia has engaged in political censorship of the Internet—it is merely the first time that the government has openly admitted to it.
Legal Status of Censorship Under Malaysian Law
The MCMC has claimed that the temporary block of the Sarawak Report was carried out under the Communications and Multimedia Act of 1998, but Malaysian law does not sanction the censorship of online websites. Specifically, the MCMC referred to Sections 211 and 233 of the Act, which prohibit the provision of “content which is indecent, obscene, false, menacing, or offensive” as well as the “improper use of network facilities or network service.” However, while both of these Sections provide for fines as a penalty for violations of the law, they do not provide for blocking or taking down websites.
Though the ban reflects Malaysian authorities are increasingly finding extralegal online censorship to be within their comfort zone, the unsophisticated methods of blocking have made circumvention relatively easy for Malaysians. The Sarawak Report created a new URL, sarawak-report.org, that appears to be accessible, even as their main address, sarawakreport.org, is blocked. The block also does not appear to impact browsing from mobile devices.
Sarawak Report readers appear well-versed in circumvention practices, if the comments on the site’s Facebook page are any indication. (Readers have suggested a wide variety of VPNs, Tor, and web-based proxies to get around the block. For more on these circumvention tools, check out EFF’s Surveillance Self-Defense page on circumventing online censorship.) Yet, even poorly executed online censorship is cause for concern—especially where, as here, it seems to mark a growing willingness to bend the law when deemed to be politically expedient.