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On Malaysia’s Internet and Media Censorship

One step forward, two steps backwards

As a collectivist Asian society, it’s not the norm to go against or question authority. 

According to Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, Malaysia supposedly has a full score of 100 when it comes to power distance, which means it’s normal for us to accept hierarchical order without any need for justification, and any behaviour outside this norm is deemed inappropriate.

Image via Twitter

However, culture changes over time, and it’s important to note that Hofstede’s data was collected back in the 1970s — we’ve come a long, long way since then. People are more outspoken now, and we have the power of social media to voice our discontent. In fact, some people say the world has gotten smaller because of how fast information spreads — we virtually have all information known to mankind at our fingertips now. 

It is precisely because of this fact that some governments have placed strict censorship regulations as to what the citizens of their country have access to. Comparitech notes that the two most censored countries in the world are:

1. North Korea

Image via Post Magazine 

As the country most notoriously known for its dogmatic dictatorship, it’s no wonder that North Korea is number one on the list for having the worst censorship in the world. With an iron grip over its citizens, governmental authorities exercise complete control over the press and media, restricting flow of information to its citizens.  

2. China

Image via Fun Life Crisis

There’s the Great Wall of China, and then there’s the Great Firewall of China. China is well renowned for having one of the world’s strongest Internet censorships, with the government heavily investing in technology to domestically regulate the Internet in the country. Many websites and apps we consider mainstream (or essential, even) such as Google and Twitter are blocked, and have their own versions, such as Baidu and Weibo instead.

In comparison to them, Malaysia isn’t so bad… right? We still have unlimited free access to social media, and can post anything we want. 

But is that really the case?

According to Malaysiakini, Malaysia was within the top 20 countries for having the worst online censorship out of 181 countries, scoring 6/10 in a study conducted by tech research company Comparitech this year. It’s no secret that Malaysia’s media had long been controlled by the then ruling coalition party Barisan Nasional (BN), before the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government’s historical win in 2018 during an election which made news all over the world. 

Since then, media and press freedom has improved slightly to some extent — Malaysia saw a significant jump in the World Press Freedom Index 2020’s ranking, to which experts attribute to the change in government. To date, Malaysia is also considered partly free by Freedom House in terms of Internet freedom. 

Before the transfer of power to the PH government, examples of previous censorship of media included:

Fan Fiction

In 2017, Malaysia became the second country in the world, after Indonesia, to ban fanfiction.net, due to its content of “obscene scenes in romance and erotic stories”. According to the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), they received complaints from the public and were acting in accordance with Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998.

Local Media Outlets and Journalists

Image via Zunar

Image via Sarawak Report

Under the ruling of the BN government, content on media and news portals as well as journalists such as the Sarawak Report and political cartoonist Zunar were made inaccessible to the general public. Besides that, “self-censorship” was, and still is, very much encouraged, and publishing anything that may “upset national unity” usually meant welcoming harassment from authorities. 

Although fanfiction.net remains banned, thankfully, the block on the Sarawak Report and other critical media outlets was lifted shortly after the PH government came into power. However, the fall of PH and formation of a “backdoor government” has completely thrown a wrench into the hopes of having a complete democracy and freedom of speech and expression, and many are worried about a regression in Malaysia. Here’s why:

Al Jazeera Documentary

Many people speculate that the recent Finas debacle was a result of Al-Jazeera’s controversial documentary on the treatment of migrants in our country; the direct and visible form of censorship was obviously a warning to prevent similar situations that paint our country in a “bad light” and condemn the government’s actions from occurring again.

As part of the process, several Al Jazeera journalists were investigated for acts of sedition, defamation and violation of the Communication and Multimedia Act, an undocumented worker that appeared in the video was arrested and faces deportation, and officials called the documentary inaccurate and misleading. Meanwhile, Al Jazeera maintained their stance, claiming that they were merely doing their jobs as journalists and that “journalism is not a crime”.

Book Cover Artwork

A book featuring artwork of a modified coat of arms (Jata Negara) on its cover was seized by police shortly after the government change, with claims that it was an act of desecration towards the national emblem and an insult to the country. The publication house was raided, and the founder and director later apologised, stating that the artwork was actually taken from an exhibition many years ago with agreement between the artist and author. 

Of course, politics aside, it isn’t the first time Finas, the central government agency for the film industry of Malaysia, has tried to censor certain media. There were two notable occasions when Finas attempted to censor media that were met with backlash from the public, proving that despite being a minority, more Malaysians are becoming open-minded: 

Netflix, 2019

Last year, Finas Chief Executive Officer Ahmad Idham Ahmad Nazri’s suggestion on censoring Netflix movies was met with disapproval from the public. Netizens pointed out that there was a parental lock feature that the streaming platform provided and that it should be parents’ responsibility to monitor what their children watched instead of the government’s. In the end, Finas clarified that it was not under their jurisdiction and that it was just a suggestion to regulate film content aired in the country.

Beauty and the Beast, 2017

Finas initially requested a scene from the Disney classic to be cut and not aired as it contained “elements of homosexuality”, which is a crime in Malaysia. The request was met with much criticism and dissent from the public, and was rejected by the studio, which appealed to the board to reconsider. They eventually dropped the request and the scene was aired without any cuts, albeit given a PG13 rating.

Every Bad Has A Good

It’s important to keep in mind that the whole idea of censorship isn’t bad — censorship is necessary to some degree to protect national security, prevent hate speech and slander, as well as protect more vulnerable communities such as children, victims of abuse and exploit, impressionable teenagers, just to name a few. 

One good example would be the recent Facebook boycott to call for better censorship. This proves the need for censorship to protect certain communities in our society from hate speech, for freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences.

It can also have unexpected benefits under the right circumstances. China’s censorship has in ways played a major part in boosting their booming economy, allowing local internet companies to become global giants as foreign investors are forced to adapt to their Chinese counterparts. 

However, it is when authorities start to selectively choose and block content for their own agendas that it becomes a problem. Limiting the flow of information to the public is not the way to build an idealistic utopian society and authorities have to know the difference between protecting and controlling the rights of people. 

There is also the common issue of enacting censorship laws whenever someone challenges their views. What is meant to protect and ensure national unity slowly but surely morphs into an overcontrolling role: it’s vital that leaders distinguish constructive criticism and public degradation from people, and are able to accept the former and learn from it. 

For the betterment of Malaysia, one must hope that all the initiative and improvements made by the previous government and various agencies can be upheld in order for us to progress from a developing country to prospering as a developed country. 

After all, Malaysia boleh, kan?

Cover image via APC

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