Internet users fear govt crackdown

In spite of promises not to censor cyberspace, Prime Minister warns those who spread 'incorrect information and slander'

Published in AsiaMedia (From The Straits Times Interactive of August 03, 2006)

KUALA LUMPUR - THE cyberspace community in Malaysia is bracing itself for a possible crackdown after Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi issued a warning against those who spread "incorrect information and slander" on the Internet.
Though the government has promised not to censor cyberspace as part of a strategy to attract investors to the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC), the blogging and news portal community says the government has, in the past, acted against Internet players when issues got too hot.
And the stand-off between Datuk Seri Abdullah and his predecessor Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is raging red-hot at the moment.
In addition, there are tensions over groups debating religious freedoms, sparked by several cases involving conversions linked to Islam.
The Prime Minister has also warned those spreading vicious rumours through short message services (SMS).
"We cannot allow the Internet or SMS to become a platform for people to spread rumours or threaten others," he said on Tuesday.
"These people are practising the sort of freedom where they spread lies if they feel like doing so. How can we have that? Where can you find that sort of freedom in the world?"
His comments followed Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin's warning that some control was needed over Internet content.
Umno's top leaders have reportedly discussed reining in the debate in cyberspace over the Abdullah-Mahathir rift that has damaged the standing of the administration.
The warnings have set the Internet community abuzz on what could happen next.
"The Internet is not supposed to be censored, but they can always say that in the light of the current security situation, things have changed," said Mr Raja Petra Kamarudin, who operates the popular malaysia-today.net site.
Last week, blogger aisehman.org, known for his witty remarks on officialdom, declared that he would stop writing "for a while" as he is concerned about what is about to happen after an earlier warning by Datuk Zainuddin. "I will be honest - I got a bad, bad feeling. You stay out of trouble, you hear?" he said in his last posting.
Datuk Seri Abdullah's warnings have raised questions about Malaysia's experiment with a freer media, which he had championed.
But the government has come under pressure to get tough after last Friday's pepper spray incident involving Tun Dr Mahathir in Kelantan.
Minutes after the attack, facts and rumours about what actually happened began to spread over cyberspace and via SMS.
These included talk that he had been abducted, that police special forces were involved or that the attack was an assassination attempt.
Police issued a warning to those who put out such unsubstantiated statements, making it plain that action could be taken against them.
Meanwhile, they are taking action against Malaysiakini.com over an article that blamed the police for the pepper spray incident.
Acting Kelantan CID chief Shafie Ismail said a report had been lodged against the website at the Kota Baru police station on Monday.


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