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Cablegate: Virtual Limits: Malaysia Attempts to Rein in Bloggers

VZCZCXRO5779
PP RUEHCHI RUEHDT RUEHHM RUEHNH
DE RUEHKL #1218/01 2111109
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 301109Z JUL 07
FM AMEMBASSY KUALA LUMPUR
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 9736
INFO RUCNASE/ASEAN MEMBER COLLECTIVE
RHHMUNA/HQ USPACOM HONOLULU HI
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC
RHHMUNA/USCINCPAC HONOLULU HI

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 04 KUALA LUMPUR 001218

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

STATE FOR EAP/MTS AND DRL -- SARAH BUCKLEY

E.O. 12958: DECL: 07/30/2017
TAGS: PGOV PHUM SOCI KPAO MY
SUBJECT: VIRTUAL LIMITS: MALAYSIA ATTEMPTS TO REIN IN BLOGGERS

REF: KUALA LUMPUR 1155 - POLICE DETAIN ANWAR AIDE

Classified By: Classified By: Political Section Chief Mark D. Clark for
reasons 1.4 (b and d).

Summary
-------

1. (C) Bloggers fear the recent police actions against two
prominent online political commentators, Nathaniel Tan and
Raja Petra Kamaruddin, presage a Government of Malaysia (GOM)
crackdown on the freedoms of speech and the press in
cyberspace. GOM leaders and officials from the dominant
United Malays National Organization (UMNO) justified the
moves as necessary to check irresponsible bloggers who incite
racial and religious hatred. The GOM has announced its
readiness to use the Internal Security Act, the Sedition Act,
and Section 121b of the Penal Code against bloggers, and
there is some discussion of introducing new legislation to
plug legal loopholes. Prominent political leaders including
the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister are warning
bloggers and cyber-activists they are not immune from the
law, and will face prosecution for transgressions such as
insulting Islam and the King, and inciting the population
through "lies" on websites. Opposition leaders and human
rights NGOs are condemning the police actions and public
threats, stating these are politically motivated and meant to
instill "a news blackout" and squelch dissent prior to the
anticipated general elections. The Internet is Malaysia's
last bastion of press freedom and the arena for incessant
rumor-mongering among the country's elites. Opposition
parties and government critics rely heavily on the Internet
because the GOM controls access to traditional media outlets
to favor UMNO and the ruling National Front (Barisan
Nasional, BN). The GOM clearly has fired a warning shot into
cyberspace in an effort to rein in outspoken critics. End
Summary.

First salvo fired against cyber-activists
-----------------------------------------

2. (SBU) The GOM fired its opening salvo on Internet
bloggers on July 13 when it arrested Nathaniel Tan, a
People's Justice Party (PKR) webmaster and blogger, after
corruption allegations against Deputy Internal Security
Minister Johari Baharom were posted by a third party on Tan's
website (reftel). When police detained Tan, they reportedly
denied him access to his lawyer, the chance to inform his
family of his arrest, and concealed his whereabouts while
processing his arrest. P. Uthayakumar, a coordinator for the
NGO Police Watch, spotted Mr. Tan when police took him before
a magistrate and notified Mr. Tan's lawyer of his
whereabouts. Tan, released on bail after four days, was held
for suspicion of "wrongful communication of an official
secret." While police reportedly questioned Tan regarding
information on the Johari corruption story, Tan's lawyer, R.
Sivarasa, stated, "I want to go on record (to say) this
detention is politically motivated."

3. (U) Lim Kit Siang, Parliamentary Opposition Leader and
member of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), condemned the
"secretive circumstances in the first seven hours of Tan's
arrest". He also called it "a scandal which speaks of a
police which has yet to fully accept that the first principle
of policing in a democratic system must be policing for the
people and not policing to serve the government leaders of
the day." Former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, the
human rights NGO Suaram, the Malaysian Bar Council, the
Center for Independent Journalism, and the World Organization
Against Torture (OMCT) all condemned Mr. Tan's arrest while
The Sun newspaper described his arrest as "politically
motivated."

UMNO Takes On Cyber Gadfly
--------------------------

4. (U) UMNO Information Chief Muhammad Muhammad Taib filed a
police report on July 23 (11 days after Mr. Tan's arrest)
against the political website Malaysia Today and its
outspoken webmaster Raja Petra. A cousin to the current
Sultan of Selangor, Raja Petra set up his website in 2004 and
it is now one of the most popular news websites in the
country. About 30 UMNO leaders accompanied the Information
Chief when he filed the police report. He claimed the
postings and articles were disrespectful to the King and
Islam, and had the potential to "create unrest in the country
and strike fear in the people." The UMNO Information Chief
urged the police to take swift action, and stated the
portal's contents could undermine unity and corrupt young
minds "to think that there are no rules and sensitivities
governing articles and that anyone can write on any matter in
the name of individual freedom."

5. (U) Several senators and defacto Law Minister Nazri Abdul
Aziz joined the chorus in the subsequent days. Nazri stated
the government would take legal action against bloggers who
flagrantly belittle Islam or the King using three laws: the
Internal Security Act (ISA), the Sedition Act, and Section
121b of the Penal Code (which relates to offenses against the
King, Sultans, or Governors that entails life imprisonment if
convicted). He cited as an example a blog entry belittling
Islam in which the writer described the religion as, "a big
lie fabricated by Arabs who had put a huge rock (the Kaabah)
in the middle of the desert." The Minister claimed the
comment was not only ill mannered but could provoke anger
among Muslims. Nazri also stated the government was
considering formulating new laws allowing it to monitor and
act against offending bloggers, and closing any legal
loopholes. He stressed that the proposed legislation's
intent is not to strangle the freedom of the Internet but to
put a stop to the "freedom to lie in the blogosphere." The
Minister explained, "We want blogs to be clean, a place to
obtain accurate information, a reference point for honest
opinion, not a platform to abuse and slander people."

6. (SBU) Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has been
savaged in Malaysia's blogs for corruption and alleged
tie-ins to the Altantuya murder scandal, explained to the
public June 23 that UMNO Information Chief's filing of the
police report against Raja Petra did not signal the GOM made
a "special decision" to clamp down on bloggers. He added,
"everyone must be aware that there are laws in this country."
However, the DPM's comments regarding bloggers were harsher
later that night while speaking at the Malaysian Press
Institute Press Awards. There, he noted the government was
deeply troubled by the growth of "irresponsible" alternative
media. He explained, "In the name of freedom, these websites
allow the broadcast of slander, lies, and swearing, the use
of harsh, degrading language and racial slurs without regard
for the reader or those concerned." He stressed the
government's tolerance of antigovernment positions and
criticisms on the Internet, but "we are very concerned about
statements that insult religion and reek of racism." He
warned that webmasters and web journalists are not exempt
from laws and the GOM "will not permit any party to disturb
the nation's harmony and cause unease among the community."

Police Summon Raja Petra
------------------------

7. (U) Raja Petra, not known for his subtlety, responded
immediately to the UMNO Information Chief with a flaming
article entitled, "See you in hell Muhammad son of Muhammad,"
which also recalled prior corruption charges against his
detractor and highlighted Raja Petra's family ties to
royalty. On July 25, police called in Raja Petra for 8 hours
of questioning before releasing him. Raja Petra claimed that
UMNO's police report and his questioning was part of "an
agenda to clamp down on blogs before the coming general
election in a move to black out news."

8. (U) Many of the same opposition politicians and activists
who rallied behind Nathanial Tan raised further alarm over
Raja Petra's predicament. Opposition leader Lim Kit Siang
stated the police report against Raja Petra was an attempt to
clampdown on "criticism, dissent, and expose (sic) of abuses
of power and corrupt practices in the run-up to the coming
general election." He added that the government should not
use criminal laws "to arrest, intimidate, and silence any
one." Understandably, the blogging community immediately
came out in support of Raja Petra. They claim the police
report against Malaysia Today and Nathaniel Tan's earlier
arrest represent a GOM attempt to intimidate other bloggers
and clampdown on "press freedom in cyberspace." Dr. Toh Kim
Win, a Penang Gerakan state cabinet minister, was the only
prominent government leader to voice support for the blogging
community. He said UMNO's police report (against Raja Petra)
represents a "growing trend towards stifling dissent in our
country." He added, "These trends, if not stopped, will
further erode the democratic space, which is already limited,
in our country." He urged the government to promote not only
economic development, but also human rights. With no
apparent sense of irony, former Prime Minister Mahathir,
himself once a champion of muzzling the press, described the
government's attempt to clampdown on bloggers as an exercise
in futility, one that wouldn't stop information flowing over
the Internet.

PM Weighs In, Finds Himself Subject of Police Complaint
--------------------------------------------- ----------

9. (SBU) Upon returning from his honeymoon travel, Prime
Minister Abdullah Badawi weighed in, warning on July 29 that
Malaysia's laws would not spare those who spread "lies" on
the Internet. Abdullah added bloggers and Internet posters
"do not have the freedom to do whatever they like."
Responding to Raja Petra's claim police cannot charge him
under Malaysian law because his site is registered overseas,
the Prime Minister said, "It is not for them (bloggers) to
claim that they are immune from the law simply because their
websites are hosted overseas where they have the right to say
anything."

10. (U) In an ironic tit-for-tat act, opposition DAP member
Ronnie Liu Tian Khiew filed a police report regarding a
"seditious posting" on the Prime Minister's official website,
originally posted on November 14, 2005. The posting conveyed
anti-Chinese sentiments. Raja Petra reported the filing on
his website, adding he expected the police to respond to the
filing and question the Prime Minister within two days, as
they had done with him. The postings were removed on July 30
after they were made public and a police report filed.

11. (SBU) Until recently, the GOM generally has refrained
from actively policing political content the Internet, in
part out of a pledge made to foster development of the
Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) and the Internet market in
Malaysia. Beginning in 2004, the GOM began making statements
on the need to introduce "cyber laws to control the
Internet," but it made little use of the regulatory authority
over on-line speech vested in the Communications and
Multimedia Commission. In December 2006, Kong Cho Ha, Deputy
Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation, stated
Malaysia may introduce tough Internet laws to control
bloggers and prevent them from spreading "disharmony, chaos,
seditious material and lies" on their websites. Early in
2007, some senior Embassy contacts alluded to internal GOM
discussions on ways to rein in Internet news reporting and
bloggers in particular. In January 2007, Prime Minister
Abdullah Badawi said although government policy is not to
censor the Internet, "bloggers are bound by laws on
defamation, sedition, and other limits of speech." The Prime
Minister's comment referred to the defamation lawsuit filed
by the News Straits Times (NST), an English language
newspaper owned by UMNO, against Jeff Ooi and Ahirudin Atan
(aka Rocky), another prominent blogger, for their blogs and
their readers' comments regarding the newspaper's editors'
roles in misrepresenting facts, publishing a caricature of
the Prophet Muhammad, and alleged plagiarism by its
journalists. Given UMNO's control over the NST, the paper's
lawsuit is seen by many as the GOM's first move against
cyber-activists and bloggers.

Comment
-------

12. (C) With the mainstream media -- television, print and
radio -- largely under the thumb of UMNO and the ruling
National Front, and a number of important national topics
ruled out of bounds, including most recently the "Islamic
state" controversy, the Internet is the remaining bastion for
wide ranging criticism of the government and discussion of
otherwise taboo political subjects. The Internet is also the
focus of incessant rumor-mongering among the country's
elites, honed to a fine art by the likes of Raja Petra who
kept the milling turning, often without any solid information
to back up his sensational reports. Opposition figures,
largely unable to access the mainstream press, rely heavily
on the Internet to reach Malaysia's computer-savvy upper
class, while realizing that this information does not readily
penetrate down to the grassroots. The Internet has helped
government critics fan corruption stories, aided Mahathir in
his ill-fated challenge against PM Abdullah last year, and
kept alive allegations of DPM Najib's links to the Altantuya
murder case.

13. (C) The GOM clearly has fired a warning shot into
cyberspace in an effort to rein in outspoken critics ahead of
the impending elections; government pressure on the blogging
community through complaints and police actions seems very
much tied to the preparation of the election ground. Senior
government officials and UMNO leaders have made clear that
the sniping from cyberspace rankles deeply, and UMNO has a
strong interest in weakening the opposition's electronic
platform at this particular time. Even if this does not
evolve into a real crackdown, the government warnings and
criminal investigations of Tan and Raja Petra could send a
chill through Malaysia's boisterous Internet community that
will temper some voices. We doubt, however, that others will
allow themselves to be silenced and the GOM, like other
governments, will find the Internet difficult to constrain.
The Embassy supports freedom of speech on the Internet
through active and carefully calibrated public affairs
programming, including through expert U.S. speakers and
support to seminars, and we seek to engage government and
opinion leaders behind the scenes to preserve Internet space
for the broad range of Malaysian viewpoints.
LAFLEUR

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