Backsliding Reformists: Malaysia’s Government Revives Crackdown on Media Freedoms

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Backsliding Reformists: Malaysia’s Government Revives Crackdown on Media Freedoms

Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim is using the same repressive tools against his opponents that were used against his party during its years in opposition.

Backsliding Reformists: Malaysia’s Government Revives Crackdown on Media Freedoms

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim addresses a session of Parliament on March 29, 2023.

Credit: Twitter/Anwar Ibrahim

In the run-up to state elections last month, Malaysia’s ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition blocked access to four pro-opposition media sites, a stark reversal of policy for the coalition that toppled Malaysia’s authoritarian regime in 2018 and helped Malaysia become the most democratic country in Southeast Asia, according to The Economist. But in the face of an increasingly populist opposition, PH has lost the liberal optimism of its youth, and these recent crackdowns betray the fragility of Malaysia’s democracy.

On June 27, 15 days before the six state elections, local internet service providers (ISPs) inexplicably blocked access to the pro-opposition news outlet MalaysiaNow. Over the next three weeks, the same fate befell UtusanTV, Malaysia Today, TV Pertiwi, and the blog of former politician Wee Choo Keong.

According to MalaysiaNow, users trying to access these sites were redirected to an IP address belonging to the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC). None of the websites received any warning or clarification of cause, and even today it remains unclear which exact articles attracted MCMC’s attention. While the bans on MalaysiaNow and UtusanTV were lifted within a few days, Malaysia Today, TV Pertiwi and Wee Choo Keong’s blog remain inaccessible to most Malaysians, long after the conclusion of the state elections.

But both MCMC and its supervisory Ministry of Communications and Multimedia refused to comment on the matter. Instead, Minister of Communications Fahmi Fadzil denied any directive to ban the website. “I believe the media should be free and I have given no instruction to MCMC to block anyone,” he stated in early August. “If police reports or complaints are lodged by the public, MCMC has their own power.”

MCMC declined to comment on specific cases, and has simply restated that it follows Malaysian law in tackling misinformation and offensive content. Under the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 and the Sedition Act 1948, the government retains the legal right to ban “content deemed indecent, obscene, false, threatening, or offensive,” a series of vague descriptors that previous governments have abused to suppress media freedoms.

These ISP blocks have not escaped the attention of civil society in Malaysia. Bersih, the pro-democracy movement that once helped PH rise to power in 2018, stated that “such actions are reminiscent of censorship undertaken by Najib Razak against news portals . . . during that era, Pakatan Harapan (PH) was denied access to government media platforms and any reports on them by these media were skewed and unflattering.”

Press freedom watchdog Gerakan Media Merdeka (GERAMM) along with a coalition of prominent Malaysian journalists have issued similar statements condemning the suppression of free speech. Veteran journalist Gobind Rudra characterized the Minister Fahmi Fadzil as a “pipsqueak Goebbels.”

These bans follow PH’s unprecedented content moderation initiative to target “fake news” and provocations of sensitivities relating to the “3Rs” – race, religion, and royalty. Race and religion are particularly sensitive topics in Malaysia, with deep tensions between the ethnic-Malay majority and significant Chinese and Indian minorities. Using this compellingly local argument, the Ministry of Communications has reiterated the idea of 3R on an almost daily basis, such that the term has become somewhat of a running joke among local political analysts.

More troublingly, the Ministry has held frequent and publicized meetings with TikTok, Meta, X, and Telegram in which it has requested them to take down provocative 3R posts. When Meta refused to comply, the Ministry threatened to pursue legal action, forcing the tech company back to the negotiating table.

Recently, the Prime Minister’s Department also announced plans to impose civil penalties for provoking 3R sentiments, rather than exclusively relying on criminal prosecution under the Sedition Act. On one hand, this proposal would enable the government to address hate speech without resorting to draconian penalties and time-wasting bureaucracy. At the same time, the relative convenience of issuing small fines for 3R provocations may create a chilling effect on public discourse.

Put together, these initiatives reveal PH’s deep insecurities over its electoral future, as well as a calculated, incremental lean towards authoritarianism. All of these scandals preceded the August 12 state elections, which analysts widely regarded as a “referendum” on PH’s performance. In the end, the election results failed to topple PH. Nevertheless, the opposition Perikatan Nasional (PN) made significant inroads amongst Malay voters, which bodes poorly for PH’s long-term future.

To be clear, most of these media sites are by no means liberal voices of freedom. MalaysiaNow, MalaysiaToday, TV Pertiwi, and UtusanTV tacitly support PN and its brand of Islamist and Malay ethno-nationalism. PH is also correct in observing that PN has uniquely relied on misinformation campaigns on social media, a tactic that exploits the inherent vulnerabilities of an unrestricted mediasphere. The PN strategy swayed significant portions of Malay voters during both the 2022 general elections and 2023 state elections, and certainly warrants increased content moderation safeguards.

Nevertheless, most of these accredited media organizations merely publish articles with a partisan bent, and are categorically distinct from PN’s social media cybertroopers. Moreover, Wee Choo Keong was once a member of Parliament under PH, and his blog primarily focuses on government corruption rather than racial tensions or 3R issues. The inclusion of his blog suggests that PH has begun censoring even progressive criticisms of their administration.

Such censorship is a marked departure from PH’s historical role as the vanguard of “Reformasi” (democratic reformation) in Malaysia. For decades, PH was the only viable opposition against a functionally authoritarian coalition of parties known as Barisan Nasional (BN). During this time, the ruling BN coalition exerted a chokehold over most local media outlets, and in 2016 imposed the same ISP ban against The Malaysian Insider for covering the corruption scandal of then-Prime Minister Najib Razak.

To the surprise and relief of most Malaysians, PH won the 2018 general election through sheer weight of numbers, and ushered in a new era of democratic reform for Malaysian politics. PH almost immediately revoked the Anti-Fake News Act that BN had once used against them, albeit leaving the more controversial Sedition Act and Communications and Multimedia Act intact. But due to its genuine efforts in advancing democracy, Malaysia has consecutively experienced two nail-bitingly competitive elections, and now boasts the highest ranking for both democracy and media freedoms in ASEAN.

But democratization has come at a price, as PN’s far-right populism has surged to the forefront of Malaysian discourse. In the 2022 general elections, the three-way fight between PH, PN, and long-dethroned BN resulted in a hung parliament, with no single party able to win. PH won a plurality but had ceded so many ethnic-Malay voters to PN that it was forced to strike an uneasy alliance with its former rival, BN. Together, the two coalitions cobbled together Malaysia’s current “unity government” with PH’s Anwar Ibrahim as prime minister.

But the presence of such a strange bedfellow seems to have seeped into PH’s own ideology. In July, the police arrested prominent PN politician Sanusi Nor under the Sedition Act for criticizing the monarchy. Just last week, the Attorney-General’s Chambers unexpectedly decided to drop 47 corruption charges against the Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. Zahid Hamidi is the current leader of BN, and a vital linchpin in Anwar Ibrahim’s unity government. These decisions are not technically under PH’s direct influence, but the return of such politically-expedient court cases are reminiscent of BN’s heyday and have attracted scrutiny from both sides of Malaysia’s political spectrum.

Admittedly, such measures are a far cry from the kleptocracy and naked repression that Malaysia has witnessed before. The fact that the 2022 general election and the 2023 state elections remained so hotly contested indicates that political competition is alive and well within Malaysia. Nevertheless, as PN continues to gain momentum among ethnic-Malay voters, PH will increasingly feel the pressure to renege on their past promises to retain power.

For the foreseeable future, Malaysians may be forced to vote between a far-right party led by former authoritarians, and a once-reformist party that has allied with former authoritarians and is increasingly employing its allies’ tactics. Only time can tell whether Malaysia’s position as the frontrunner of democracy in Southeast Asia will last, or whether the last five years were merely a transition to a new form of electoral authoritarianism.