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Asia

Malaysia plans to force blogs, news sites to register

The Malaysian government is seeking a law change that would require the country's "political" blogs and news websites to register with authorities. The move has reignited allegations that it is trying to silence dissent.

59-year-old Kadir Jasin has been running a blog about Malaysian politics since 2006. The journalist, author and former editor-in-chief of several top Malaysian newspapers updates his "kadirjasin.blogspot.com" website two to three times a week, in a mixture of Malay and English.

He has posted extensively about the ongoing scandal surrounding Malaysia's beleaguered Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has struggled to fend off allegations of corruption involving the debt-laden state-owned investment firm "1Malaysia Development Berhad" or "1MBD." PM Najib serves as the fund's advisory board chairman.

Jasin's blog archive also reveals his personal opinions about previous Malaysian leaders Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Abdullah Badawi and their governments.

But blogs like Jasin's and independent news portals including the respected "Malaysiakini" ("Malaysia Today") may soon be required to register with the government, if amendments to an existing multimedia law are adopted.

Media controls tightened

The country's traditional media - including newspapers and broadcasters - may be mostly privately run, but they are tightly regulated and remain under the control of political parties in the ruling coalition or run by businesses with strong links to the government.

Although dozens of bloggers have been arrested for breaking laws relating to obscenity, incitement to hatred or sedition, responsible online commentators and news sites have enjoyed a certain amount of legal protection under the 1998 "Communications and Multimedia Act."

Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak

PM Najib's government is accused of trying to silence online critics following a corruption scandal

"Malaysia's freedom of Internet was a promise made by Mahathir when he was prime minister, specifically to encourage the development of a Silicon Valley-style industry in an area called the Multimedia Super Corridor close to the capital Kuala Lumpur," Singapore-based ex-political journalist Ravi Veloo told DW.

But since then, Mahathir - who was Malaysia's longest-serving prime minister between 1981 and 2003 - has "decried" his own vow as "ill-conceived," Veloo added.

Proponents of free speech say the flourishing of alternative media online has played an important role in helping the country open up politically. "Malaysia has developed an alternative media via the Internet," political scientist Professor Bridget Welsh told DW.

"It has made the country more democratic. It has been an important check for accountability and has contributed to the gains for the opposition in the last two elections," she added.

However, the Malaysian government insists it wants to protect against the publication of misleading information which could reignite already-tense racial divisions between the country's ethnic Malay majority and Chinese and Indian minorities.

Silencing dissent?

But Welsh, who specializes in contemporary Southeast Asian politics at Turkey's Ipek University, says while the requirement for registration alone is not censorship, the new proposals will likely be used for "censorship and control."

The Malaysian Insider screenshot

"The Malaysian Insider" is one of the casualties from the government clamp down on online media

Other critics agree the move is a first step in a plan to ramp up online censorship after several news websites were blocked from publishing what the government said was "unverified" information about the 1MBD scandal.

In March, the popular portal "The Malaysian Insider," was blocked after it reported that the country's anti-corruption agency had enough evidence to charge PM Najib with graft. It was forced to close a few weeks later due to falling advertising revenues.

"Governments have been at a loss on how to control content on the Internet," analyst Veloo told DW. "Even the language used by the Malaysian ministry looking into the registration idea reveals the mindset of a censor," he added.

Communications Minister Salleh Said Keruak also reportedly described in his blog that freedom of speech is not a right, but a privilege, adding that "the privilege, if abused, can sometimes be withdrawn."

Singapore's success

A similar registration requirement was introduced by neighbor Singapore in 2013. Any website that publishes at least one article per week about Singapore and has 50,000 or more unique visitors over two months must apply for a license, renewable each year.

Welsh said the outcome of registration in Singapore was "evident in the 2015 general election," which saw the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) achieve its best result since 2001.

Despite the opposition contesting all 89 seats, the PAP continues to dominate the city state's political landscape, she added.

In her own poll with around 800 Singaporean voters, Welsh found a lack of online resources for political information meant voters had to rely on the country's state-run media.

Malaysian newspapers

Malaysian newspapers are heavily regulated and mostly owned by those with links to the government

Critics of online registration fear Malaysia's Barisan Nasional coalition, which has run the country for 56 years - and which won its smallest majority in the 2013 election - has no option but to crush dissent if it is to retain its iron grip on the country.

Call for self-regulation

Even so, some bloggers support the government's move, claiming that anonymous blog and websites have not been transparent about being financed by opposition groups.

But Welsh disagrees, warning that the "implementation (of online content regulation) has been biased and uneven." She told DW that government actors pay their own cyber troopers to write blogs supporting the ruling coalition "and they are unchecked."

Several bloggers have called for the Communications and Multimedia Ministry to consult with online journalists before changing the law, saying a system of self-regulation would be preferable to registration and licensing.

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