This week, the Malaysian Parliament went back into session to consider a series of amendments to the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 that, if passed, will further chill online speech and worsen the Malaysian regime's persecution of journalists, bloggers, and activists. The amendments may pass as early as next week, even before the public has had an opportunity to see them. We've written about the planned amendments before, based on the scattered information we had about them from leaks and rumors, but local activists have brought to light another likely feature of the planned amendments that is equally or more concerning: a requirement to register political blogs and websites.
There are numerous problems with such a requirement. Most fundamentally, the need for registration of any online publisher is an unwarranted incursion on freedom of expression. A 2003 Joint Declaration of intergovernmental rapporteurs on freedom of expression and the media specifies that "journalists should not be required to be licensed or to register." The reasons are obvious: by withholding registration or threatening to do so, the government can silence dissenters and skew public discourse in its favor.
But even leaving the freedom of expression issue aside, on a simply practical level the maintenance of a register of political blogs, news portals, and websites is an unmanageable task. What is the definition of a political blog? Does this also cover a personal blog which occasionally comments on current events? What is a news portal? Does it include a news aggregation website? However these questions are answered, there will be so many edge cases that the registration system is likely to be ineffective, as well as casting a grey legal cloud over the online speech of ordinary Malaysians.
This week a coalition of nine Malaysian civil society organizations have expressed their concern with these and other aspects of the proposed amendments:
We are concerned that the proposed amendments are politically motivated with the sole purpose of imposing legal restrictions to public’s right to access to political information and to freedom of expression. … Decisions to restrict freedom of information and expression should follow due process of the law and international standards and norms. It should be clear, least restrictive, necessary and proportionate. This at minimum, requires a court order.
EFF shares these concerns, and calls on Malaysia's ruling party to withdraw the amendments from the current session of Parliament pending their release to the public for consultation and review. A few days after we published our last article about the crackdown on political speech in Malaysia, the Malaysian Insider, one of Malaysia's few independent online news sources that had been blocked by the government for its reporting on official corruption, finally shut its doors. The following month, Malaysia bombed out in the latest World Press Freedom Index, achieving a ranking of 146 out of 180 countries—lower than Burma (Myanmar). The passage of the current amendments to the Communications and Multimedia Act would mark a further downturn in the country's slide towards repression.