Malaysians are right to protest the recent amendments that the government made to the Evidence Act of 1950. Although they deal specifically with the internet, the amendments could have wider implications on media freedom, democracy, and human rights.
Section 114A of the bill seeks “to provide for the presumption of fact in publication in order to facilitate the identification and proving of the identity of an anonymous person involved in publication through the internet.” In other words, the section makes it easier for law enforcement authorities to trace the person who has uploaded or published material posted online.
According to the amended law, however, the originators of the content are those who own, administer, and/or edit websites, blogs, and online forums. Also included in the amendment are persons who offer webhosting services or internet access. And lastly, the owner of the computer or mobile device used to publish content online is also covered under section 114A.
This means that a blogger or forum moderator who allows seditious comments on his or her site can be held liable under the law. An internet café manager is accountable if one of his or her customers sends illegal content online through the store’s WiFi network. A mobile phone owner is the perpetrator if defamatory content is traced back to his or her electronic device.
Critics of the amendment contend that under section 114A, a person is considered guilty until proven innocent. Their fear is not entirely baseless. Indeed, the Thai government has used a similar law to prosecute a blog moderator for an allegedly seditious comment which she approved to be posted on her website.
The Malayisn government has rejected these criticisms with one cabinet member calling some of the objections “childish.”
The Centre for Independent Journalism was quick to denounce the provisions of the bill which went into effect at the end of last month. It warned that “internet users may resort to self-censorship to avoid false accusations made under Section 114A. Bloggers, for example, may excessively censor comments made by their readers. As a result, Section 114A inadvertently stifles public discussion about pertinent political or social issues and protects public authorities, such as the State, from public scrutiny.”
Internet users signed a petition opposing the amendments and lectured the government about the importance of allowing online anonymity to protect the identities of human rights and democracy advocates. But the amendments, according to the petition, “reduce the opportunity to be anonymous online which is crucial in promoting a free and open Internet. Anonymity is also indispensable to protect whistleblowers from persecution by the authorities when they expose abuses of power.”
When the petition was ignored by the government, netizens and media groups organized an online blackout on August 14, which succeeded in mobilizing thousands of internet users. The global attention which the action generated was likely what convinced the Prime Minister to agree to have the cabinet review the controversial amendments. Although this announcement was initially welcomed by opponents of the amendments, the Cabinet ultimately upheld the amended law.
The amendments are supposed to empower authorities to prosecute people publishing seditious, libelous, and harmful content on the internet. But it doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to envision how these same authorities could abuse the law to restrict media freedom, violate the privacy of individuals, and curtail the human rights of ordinary internet users.