BACKLASH was instantaneous when Information, Communications and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim announced on 7 Aug 2009 that the Malaysian government was planning to filter the internet. Apparently modelled after China’s Green Dam software, Rais said the Malaysian filter was intended to weed out online smut, especially where children were concerned.
“Those who call themselves liberals should look at what has happened to other countries who have become victims, where child sex occurs and pornography is widespread,” Rais said.
Barely hours after Rais’s statement, none other than Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak said that the government would not censor the internet. He said such a move would be ineffective in a borderless world where information flows freely. “If we put a form of control, the people cannot accept it,” he said.
Finally after much heat, Rais himself backed down on 12 Aug, saying the government would scrap its internet filtering plan. However, Rais said that the government would use existing laws to prevent internet abuse.
“We will not filter the internet, but Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin (Hussein), (Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department) Datuk Seri Nazri (Aziz) and I have been tasked to look for instances of sedition, fraud and child pornography,” he said. The issue thus appears to be somewhat laid to rest, at least for now.
But more interesting than Rais’s about-turn is Najib’s, given that in 2005, the then deputy prime minister himself made an almost identical recommendation to filter the internet.
“We will see what we can do because [access to online pornography] is very worrying.
“Within government departments, we have introduced specific software to block access to such websites. We will expand this policy to include other areas, too,” said Najib.
In a country like Malaysia, any talk by the government of filtering the internet immediately raises alarm bells among civil society groups and opposition politicians. As recently as September 2008, a directive was issued by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) to all local internet service providers to block Malaysia-today.net, a popular political blog and news aggregator. Barely 12 days after that, the blog’s founder Raja Petra Kamarudin was arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA). In an environment like this, the overriding assumption among the public is that online censorship is meant to clamp down on political dissent.
Thus, it complicates matters when the government frames internet filtering as a move to censor pornographic websites. After all, in a Muslim-majority country, who would dare openly oppose a move to censor online pornography? It is important to note, according to The Star‘s 9 Aug editorial, that even though China’s Green Dam software was supposed to filter out harmful pornography, less than 18% of the keywords it filtered were porn-related. This, then, is the slippery slope that censorship of online pornography usually takes, especially in an already repressive regime.
According to The Star: “Whatever is defined as pornography might cover what is deemed obscene, then what is considered undesirable, and then what is said to be unsuitable — with these judgements being subjective and arbitrary, if not also political.”
We don’t need to take The Star‘s word at face value. Organisations such as media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and anti-corruption watchdog Global Integrity have also identified internet censorship as a threat to democracy even in supposedly democratic regimes.
For example, RSF says that proposed internet censorship in Australia to curb child pornography is disturbingly vague and ill-defined. “The draft law was proposed against a background in which anti-terror legislation already allows serious inroads into confidentiality of private correspondence,” says RSF.
And in countries with a history of political repression and moral policing, passage of online censorship laws to allegedly weed out pornography could potentially lead to further real-time repression.
Take Indonesia for example. Passed in March 2008, the Electronic Information and Transaction Law states that anyone caught sharing pornographic material, false news or racial and religious hate messages on the internet could go to prison for up to six years and be fined RP1 billion (approximately RM356,000). As of June 2009, two individuals have been charged under the law — journalist and blogger Iwan Piliang, and Prita Mulyasari, a woman who circulated an e-mail complaint about Omni International Hospital.
And Iran‘s Islamic theocracy goes a step further — it bans not only pornographic websites, but also all “western cultural influences” and sites that “rudely make fun of religious and political figures in the country”. In 2006, internet users could not even access Amazon.com and YouTube.com.
But perhaps it is best to ask ordinary citizens and internet users: Should we be afraid of the internet? Do we need online censorship? Or can we deal with harmful content on the web in different ways? Who defines which content is “harmful”, anyway?
Give us your take — but remember, in six words only. Here are some entries the newsroom came up with:
Just censoring smut to protect kids?
Is filter system transparent and accountable?
Political dissent is acceptable adult material.
Political dissent on the black market.
Sila cuba. Kerajaan BN pasti berjaya.
For whom, by whom, of whom?
Can the internet really be censored?
Yang kebelakangan zaman yang akan cuba.
Why should the state arbitrarily decide?
Porn: the pretext for silencing dissent.
Imposing borders on a borderless world.
No need for a safety Net.
Censor “Hotmail” because it sounds suggestive.
See no evil, vote no evil.
Pornography. Eyes. Beholder. Dissent. Offensive. Censor.
My retina, my screen, my choice.
The Nut Graph is child-friendly, hopefully.
Inspired by Ernest Hemingway‘s genius, the Six Words On… section challenges readers to give us their comments about a current issue, contemporary personality or significant event in just six words. The idea is to get readers engaged in an issue that The Nut Graph identifies, while having fun and being creatively disciplined.
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