(February 4, 2002) Malaysiakini, a popular online independent news provider in Malaysia, continues to await the return of four servers that have been in police custody since the police raided its office on January 20. Many believe that the raid is part of the Malaysian government's larger effort to suppress alternative news sources in the event that general elections are held later this year.
During the raid, police confiscated a total of 19 computers to undergo "forensic examination." By the end of last week, only 15 of the computers had been returned. The police still have all four of Malaysiakini's servers.
On January 9, Umno Youth, the ruling Barisan Nasional party's youth wing, filed a police report against Malaysiakini alleging that they had published a "seditious" letter on their Web site that would incite racial hatred and undermine national security. Umno Youth has traditionally played a key role in creating controversy and often makes statements that party leaders are unable to make in public.
According to a report by Malaysiakini, Umno Youth's Information Chief Azimi Daim stated that "by making false accusations as well as questioning the Malay special rights, [the letter] could instill hatred towards the government in non-Malay Malaysians."
The controversial letter written by an anonymous author was posted on the Malaysiakini Web site on January 9. Entitled "Similarities Between 'New Americans' and Bumiputera," it questioned privileges given to the majority Malay population.
"The entire investigation is about trying to identify the letter writer," explained Steven Gan, editor of Malaysiakini, in an interview with the Digital Freedom Network. "The moment they entered the office, that is what they wanted. They want to arrest the author and charge them."
When Gan and staff refused to divulge the identity of the author, the police began to seize their computers despite their insistence that only one computer contained information on the author and that seizing all of their computers would affect Malaysiakini's ability to function.
"The four servers are the key hardware that they want," said Gan. "They would definitely contain information about the writers, but it will be very hard for them to break into them." As for the other 15 computers, Gan is confident that there was nothing in them that would incriminate Malaysiakini.
The letters section of Malaysiakini receives anywhere from one to two dozen letters daily. Only approximately 8 to 10 of these letters survive the editorial selection process which eliminates those that attack individuals, are considered racist or sexist, or anything that would be in violation of Malaysian law.
"We look for letters that express opinions or argue a certain position, whether we agree with them or not," clarified Gan.
In Malaysia, a policy of positive discrimination has been adopted towards the majority Malay population.
While the Malays have held political power since independence in 1957 and comprise 65 percent of the population, they have lagged behind the minority Chinese and Indian population in terms of economic prosperity.
Therefore, the government provided Malays with a range of special economic and social privileges such as preference in University seats, business licenses, government contracts, housing, and scholarships. In the beginning the policy received widespread support, but such support has waned following abuse by those in power. Many now question the continuation of the policy. One Malay opposition party has argued for its eradication and even Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad himself has openly questioned whether the policy should continue, stating that perhaps it was time for Malays to throw away their crutches.
"I believe Mahathir wants to encourage more independence among the Malays because he understands that they need to compete with others both internally and around the world," reflected Gan.
"There are a lot of people discussing this issue," said Gan. "But there is also strong opposition to removing these privileges." Last year, a police report was filed against Umno Youth for trying to burn down a building that housed a Chinese group. They made the mistake of questioning the government's policy of positive discrimination.
Although a police report was filed, the case was never investigated and no charges were filed against Umno Youth.
While Malaysiakini has been able operate more freely compared to other mainstream news sources, they still work under many limitations. "There are 35 restrictive laws that affect freedom of expression on the Internet in Malaysia," declared Gan.
The Malaysian government has controlled all forms of media within the country for several years. "They have been able to decide what is true and what is not true and what information or angle should be given to any report," elucidated Gan.
Web sites such as Malaysiakini are important because they have been able to break the government's monopoly over information. People can log onto the Malaysiakini Web site and read breaking news articles that have a different angle than those endorsed by the government. In addition, their letter column has created an important forum for debate and discussion of national and regional issues.
"We have been able to challenge the government's ability to manipulate the news and set the agenda for debate," said Gan. And challenging such government power is particularly important before elections.
"The crackdown does have a lot to do with elections," alleged Gan. "They really need to make information accessible for people to make correct decisions on who to vote for. In that sense Malaysiakini is a threat because the government has lost their ability to control the situation."
The raid on Malaysiakini has been linked by many to speculation concerning the date of general elections. The government may be suppressing Malaysiakini's content in order to restrict information needed by the population to make informed votes. While general elections are scheduled for next year, many believe that they are more likely to take place this year. Malaysia uses a parliamentary system that allows the government to decide the date of elections. In the past, prime ministers have abused this power by choosing to hold elections when they are most likely to be victorious.
"If there is a war with Iraq then I think that elections will take place later this year," surmised Gan. "People will be worried about the economy among other things."
This year, Mahathir has declared that he will step down after 21 years in power. He has already named Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as his successor. Since the government no longer has a monopoly over information in the country, independent news sources such as Malaysiakini could provide citizens with information that could affect their votes.
One main difference between online newspapers such as Malaysiakini and the mainstream media is that they are not required to obtain a license. "The government cannot shut us down or declare our Web site to be illegal," expressed Gan. Although there was talk of changing the law so that online news providers would be required to obtain licenses, it never materialized.
"I don't think that such a requirement will be created in the future because this police raid on Malaysiakini has already generated a lot of backlash against the government," concluded Gan.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that the sedition law is not clearly defined leaving a large loophole for abuse. The law currently allows the government to arrest people if they are believed to be a security threat or are inciting racial hatred.
"I will leave the interpretation of the sedition law for the courts to decide if and when the police decide to charge me," decided Gan.