Status: Partly Free
Obstacles to Access: 8 (0–25)
Limits on Content: 12 (0–35)
Violations of User Rights: 20 (0–40)
Total Score: 40 (0–100)
Freedom of the internet and digital media in Malaysia has grown in the past two years, as the government has encouraged increased access, and information and communications technologies (ICTs) have been playing a greater role in political mobilization and participation. The most notable trends have been the growing population of bloggers in the country and the increased use of video-sharing websites, such as YouTube, to spread political messages, especially in the run-up to the country’s 12th general election on March 8, 2008. However, this expansion has encountered some obstacles. Several bloggers have been arrested or faced defamation charges under vaguely worded legislation, raising concerns that traditional press freedom restrictions may spill over into cyberspace.
Malaysia’s first internet service provider (ISP), Jaring, was inaugurated in 1992 by the Malaysian Institute of Microelectronic Systems1 (MIMOS), with an initial group of 28 subscribers. The growth of internet in Malaysia has since been steady and incremental, driven in large part by state-guided initiatives that were rolled out every two to three years.
Obstacles to Access
Malaysia has a relatively high degree of internet penetration, with approximately 15 million users—more than half of the total population of 27 million—as of 2008.2 There are currently 21 ISPs operating in the country, most of them privately owned. The three private mobile-telephone service providers are Maxis Communications, Celcom, and Digi.com, which control 42 percent, 32 percent, and 26 percent of the market, respectively.3 Malaysians can access the internet through home connections, mobile phones, or cybercafes.
While the country was an early adopter of the internet and has pioneered some of the first ICT regulatory frameworks in the region, especially through the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) project, online access remains very much an urban phenomenon. There is a clear urban-rural gap, with more than 80 percent of internet users living in urban areas.4 A similar gap persists in mobile-phone usage, with rural residents accounting for just 22 percent of the country’s users.5 However, according to the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), the national mobile-phone penetration rate was 93.9 percent in 2008, much higher than the internet-penetration figure.6 The spread of mobile-phone access, including in rural areas, has made SMS (text messaging) an increasingly important factor in the Malaysian political landscape.7
In recent years, the Malaysian government has been particularly aggressive in promoting broadband access, and the country is now home to more than 1.4 million broadband users.8 Indeed, in October 2008 the Energy, Water, and Communications (EWC) Ministry threatened to revoke the WIMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) licenses of companies that failed to roll out the service within the prescribed timeframe.9 The cost of internet access is reasonable relative to the gross national income (GNI) per capita of $6,540.10 A broadband connection package (1 megabit per second/384 kilobits per second) offered by the largest ISP in the country cost the average consumer around $25 per month in 2008.11 Any package slower than a broadband connection is significantly cheaper. User-generated-content websites such as YouTube, social-networking sites like Facebook, and blog-hosting services including Blogspot.com and Wordpress.com are freely available.
Currently the internet falls under the immediate purview of the MCMC, a regulatory body that answers to the EWC minister. Both the MCMC and the ministry are guided by the 1998 Communication and Multimedia Act (CMA), which gives the EWC minister a wide range of licensing and other powers. Under the CMA, a license is required to own and operate a network facility. There have not been any reported denials of ISP license applications, but the licensing process could be a form of control, and the owners of major ISPs and mobile-phone service providers often have connections to the government. Of the two largest ISPs, TMnet and Jaring, the former is a subsidiary of the privatized national phone company Telekom Malaysia, and the latter is wholly owned by the Ministry of Finance. Maxis Communications, the largest mobile-phone service provider, was the founded by Ananda Krishnan, who also owns the largest satellite broadcaster and enjoys close ties to former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. The state government in Selangor imposed a freeze on new applications for cybercafes, but it was lifted in January 2008 after 38 months. The freeze was imposed primarily due to the widespread use of cybercafes as illegal gambling and gaming centers that operate at late hours and attract a predominantly school-age clientele, as opposed to a deliberate restriction on public access to the internet.12
Limits on Content
The Malaysian government does not employ any known filtering technology to actively censor internet content or limit internet communications. There are no specific laws aimed at limiting or censoring the internet, and a provision of the CMA explicitly states that nothing in the act “shall be construed as permitting the censorship of the Internet.” The MSC Bill of Guarantees also promises no censorship of the internet. However, the extensive powers available to the government under older laws such as the Sedition Act, the Official Secrets Act (OSA), and the Internal Security Act (ISA) are likely to encourage self-censorship among internet users.
The government has generally upheld its promises on direct censorship, except in the case of the MCMC’s decision to block the controversial website MalaysiaToday. The site, a news-aggregating portal founded by Raja Petra Kamarudin, has been very critical of the ruling party. On August 28, 2008, the MCMC ordered all major ISPs to block MalaysiaToday. Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar justified the move by citing Sections 263 and 233 of the CMA, which penalize “improper use of facilities or network services.”13 The ban was repealed by the cabinet two weeks later, but EWC Minister Shaziman Abu Mansor argued that the reversal was acceptable because there were other, “harsher” laws available, including the Internal Security Act and the Sedition Act. Along with the ban on MalaysiaToday, the MCMC also lifted bans on about 100 other websites that had previously been blocked due to pornography or financial scams. There are no other known websites being banned, filtered, or blocked by the government. However, users continue to be discouraged from expressing views related to sensitive or “red-line” issues such as Islam’s official status, race, and the special rights enjoyed by bumiputera (ethnic Malays and other indigenous people, as opposed to ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities).
There is a vibrant blogosphere in Malaysia. Currently the dominant language of blogging is English, with Malay used to a lesser extent. This may be attributed to the nature of the user base, which consists largely of highly educated urban professionals who are more comfortable with the English language. Many civil society groups have an online presence, but in some cases their websites are not regularly updated. All mainstream news outlets have corresponding websites that mirror the print format and do not deviate from progovernment editorial policies.
Political parties have been able to use the internet to disseminate political messages and to mobilize the people. This was illustrated in the March 2008 general election, and also in the mounting of numerous public rallies and protests. Three of the country’s largest telecommunications companies reportedly experienced a surge in SMS traffic during nomination day on February 24, and polling day on March 8.14 Videos of political speeches and public protests were widely distributed on the internet through blogs and video-sharing websites. In 2006, an incident involving an anonymous video clip shot using a mobile phone—dubbed the “nude ear-squat case”—prompted an investigation by a royal commission into police operating procedures on body searches of detainees.
Violations of Users’ Rights
Although the current government has been active in trying to eliminate infrastructural and economic obstacles to internet access and does not filter online content, there have been major violations of user rights. Certain provisions in the MSC Bill of Guarantees15 and the CMA16 offer some protections, but the authorities have been able to circumvent them by making arbitrary arrests under preexisting laws. This is part of a larger phenomenon in which the laws governing freedom of expression in more traditional media have begun to spill over into cyberspace.
Defamation charges have been filed against bloggers in Malaysia, most notably Ahirudin Attan and Jeff Ooi in January 2007. They were targeted by the progovernment media conglomerate NSTP Group, prompting the establishment of the National Alliance of Bloggers (All-Blogs). The case is currently in a state of limbo, with neither side actively pursuing it. More recently, blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin was served with criminal defamation charges by two military officers who objected to being implicated in the politically charged murder of a Mongolian model.17 In May 2008, he was arrested under the Sedition Act for an article linking Deputy Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak and his wife to the murder.18 Raja Petra was then arrested in September 2008 under the ISA, which allows indefinite detention without trial. He was released in November after the High Court ruled that the detention was unconstitutional. Raja Petra had previously been arrested under the ISA in 2001, and he was interrogated by the police for eight hours in July 2007 for allegedly insulting the monarchy and Islam on his blog.19
In July 2007, the police arrested blogger Nathaniel Tan under the OSA.20 Tan, an assistant to opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim at the time, was held responsible for the comments posted on his blog site. He was remanded for four days and subsequently released. Yet another blogger, Syed Azidi Syed Aziz, was arrested under the Sedition Act in September 2008 for inciting his readers to fly the Malaysian flag upside down.21
In August 2007, a parody of the national anthem on the video-sharing website YouTube was posted by university student and musician Wee Meng Chee, also known as NameWee. In response, Mohammed Nazri Abdul Aziz, then a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, called for actions to be taken “against YouTube and bloggers for posting images and content that overstepped the boundaries on sensitive issues.”22 Wee, who was studying in Taiwan at the time, apologized for the controversy he had caused.
The EWC minister reportedly said in September 2008 that the MCMC had formed a committee comprised of the police, officials from the attorney general’s office, and representatives of the Home Ministry to monitor websites and blogs.23 It is unclear to what extent these monitoring efforts have been implemented. There has been no known effort at surveillance of mobile-phone usage. Beginning in 2007, all mobile users, including roughly 18 million prepaid users, were required to register as part of an effort to decrease rumor-mongering activities via SMS.24 It would appear, however, that such registration measures have been weakly enforced. Users in cybercafes are not required to register.
While bloggers, online journalists, and other ICT users are subject to arbitrary arrest, they generally do not face extralegal intimidation or physical violence. Still, some bloggers have reported receiving threatening messages from anonymous users. Of the bloggers arrested between 2006 and 2008, none were reported to have been abused physically while in custody.
2 Household use of the Internet Survey 2008, http://www.skmm.gov.my/Admin/WhatIsNew/CCD09/HUIS2008.pdf, accessed March 20, 2009
3 The Star, “Celcom’s about-turn success,” February 28, 2009, http://biz.thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2009/2/28/business/3367612&sec=business, accessed March 20, 2009
4 Communications and Multimedia Selected Facts and Figures 2008 Q1, http://www.skmm.gov.my/facts_figures/stats/index.asp, accessed March 20, 2009
5 Handphone user survey in 2007, http://www.skmm.gov.my/facts_figures/stats/pdf/Handphone_Users_Survey_2007.pdf, accessed March 20, 2009
6 Cellular phones in Malaysia, http://www.skmm.gov.my/facts_figures/stats/ViewStatistic.asp?cc=13949228&srid=9247989, accessed March 20, 2009
7 Cellular phones in Malaysia, http://www.skmm.gov.my/facts_figures/stats/ViewStatistic.asp?cc=13949228&srid=9247989, accessed March 20, 2009
8 Number of broadband subscriptions by technology, http://www.skmm.gov.my/facts_figures/stats/ViewStatistic.asp?cc=82923074&srid=36429996, accessed March 20, 2009
9 Syarikat gagal tawar WiMax hadapi kemungkinan ditarik balik lessen,
10 Country Snapshot - Malaysia, http://rru.worldbank.org/BESnapshots/Malaysia/default.aspx, accessed March 20, 2009; figure not at Purchasing Power Parity (PPP)
11 TMNet Website, http://www.streamyx.com.my/get_streamyx/get_streamyx.php?id=getstreamyx_package_standard, accessed March 20, 2009
12 The Star, “Abide by guideline on cyber café,” January 21, 2008, http://thestar.com.my/metro/story.asp?file=/2008/1/21/central/20059112&sec=central, accessed March 20, 2009
13 The Star, “Syed Hamid tells why Malaysia Today was blocked,” August 29, 2008, http://thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2008/8/29/nation/22194389&sec=nation, accessed March 20, 2009
14 The Star, “Surge in SMS traffic on election day,” March 30, 2008, http://thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2008/3/30/focus/20788837&sec=focus, accessed March 20, 2009
15 MSC Malaysia 10-Point Bill of Guarantees, http://www.mscmalaysia.my/topic/MSC+Malaysia+Bill+of+Guarantees, accessed March 20, 2009
16 Communication and Multimedia Act 1998, http://www.skmm.gov.my/mcmc/the_law/NewAct/Act%20588/Act%20588/a0588.htm, accessed March 20, 2009
17 “Blogger Raja Petra Sued By Two Army Personnel Implicated In His Statutory Declaration,” Bernama, July 22, 2008, http://www.bernama.com.my/bernama/v3/news.php?id=347708, accessed March 20, 2009
19 The Star, “Webmaster Raja Petra questioned for 8hrs,” July 25, 2007, http://thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2007/7/25/nation/20070725205852&sec=nation, accessed March 20, 2009
20 The Star, “Nathaniel Tan remanded for four days under OSA,” July 14, 2007,
http://thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2007/7/14/nation/20070714182404&sec=nation, accessed March 20, 2009
21 The Star, “Blogger Sheih Kickdefella under 24-hour remand,” September 19, 2008, http://thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2008/9/19/courts/2064905&sec=courts, accessed March 20, 2009
23 The Star, “Existing laws to deal with websites that cause unease,” September 12, 2008, http://www.thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2008/9/12/nation/2010044&sec=nation, accessed March 20, 2009
24 “Dec 15 Registration Deadline Stays: MCMC,” August 18, 2006, http://www.bernama.com.my/bernama/v3/news.php?id=214811, accessed March 20, 2009