IN the near future, news portals and political blogs in Malaysia may be required to register with the government – if the Communications and Multimedia Ministry has its way.
Its minister Salleh Said Keruak told local press on Tuesday that the ministry had submitted suggestions to the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) for legal amendments to be made to the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998.
He added that certain criteria would be set for those requiring registration, and that those running non-political blogs or websites would not be affected.
Salleh also said that the proposal was not meant to subdue the government’s critics, but to ensure that existing laws were kept up-to-date with current developments, as the ministry estimates that more than 66 percent of Malaysians have access to the Internet.
Salleh, who runs his own blog, had previously said there was “no such thing as absolute freedom of speech”.
He wrote in a blog post recently that freedom of speech and the expression of one’s opinions was a privilege rather than an absolute right.
“And the privilege, if abused, can sometimes be withdrawn,” he wrote.
Ahirudin Attan, a local political blogger more popularly known as Rocky’s Bru, told Asian Correspondent that while in the past he had been against the idea of having news sites and blogs register with the government, that was no longer the case.
“I’ve seen how online media freedom has been abused and misused all these years – so much so we don’t know what news to believe,” he said.
“Something must be done to ensure that those who claim to be news providers abide by the basic principles of news reporting and are held accountable.”
He was confident that the amendments, should they be passed, would not affect press freedom, as major news portals like Malaysiakini and well-known political commentators like Kadir Jasin are already operating openly.
“The move will, however, affect anonymous bloggers and portals which are not forthcoming about their financial sources and ownership,” he added.
Regarding concerns over whether the amendments would be used to restrict bloggers and news portals known to be critical of the government, Ahirudin said it would be at the government’s own peril.
“The government would be foolish to deny anyone from registering, as even now, when the government blocks a portal, mirror sites would pop up like in the case of the Malaysian Insider, the Sarawak Report and the Malaysian Chronicle,” he said.
According to political blogger Kadir Jasin, however, the amendments would be “a regressive move”.
When asked for comments regarding the issue, he told Asian Correspondent that the move could become an “additional tool of repression” and an “instrument of intimidation”.
“It shows the administration’s deepening fears regarding press freedom and freedom of speech in the country, and is a symptom of a government that lacks self-confidence. It is also an admission that it is losing the cyber warfare,” he said.
Local media movement Geramm concurred with Kadir, saying it viewed the move by the Ministry with concern.
“We believe the government is trying to extend archaic restrictions on the print media to the online space,” said Geramm spokesperson Radzi Razak.
He added that so far, there had been no consultations with online media stakeholders such as portal owners and practitioners.
“As such, we call upon the Ministry to hold a meeting with portal owners and their journalists before proceeding further with the proposal.
“We hope the move will also lead towards self-regulation of the media industry,” said Radzi.
The proposal follows the recent shutdown of The Malaysian Insider, which had been blocked from being accessed in Malaysia after its coverage of the 1MDB corruption scandal.
Since the scandal came to light, Malaysia has seen a crackdown on news portals and blogging platforms reporting on the issue, including the Sarawak Report and Medium.