Malaysia tops among govts asking TikTok to remove content amid censorship concerns

Iman Muttaqin Yusof
Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia tops among govts asking TikTok to remove content amid censorship concerns A user accesses TikTok on his smartphone in Kuala Lumpur, June 7, 2024.
[S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

Malaysia topped the list of governments asking TikTok to remove content last year, company data released Friday showed, about a month after the country’s ranking plummeted on a global press freedom index.

Still, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim shrugged off such rankings and numbers last week, saying that being tough against racist and bigoted content in his multiethnic and multifaith country was more important.

The short-video platform TikTok received 2,202 government requests to remove a little more than 6,000 pieces of content, according to its bi-annual “Government Removal Requests Report” for 2023. Most of the requests – 1,862 of the total – came from July to December.

“In some cases, we will remove or restrict content reported by government agencies. We review requests made to us through the proper channels and where otherwise required by law,” TikTok’s report said. 

“If a request isn’t legally valid or doesn’t violate our guidelines or [local] laws, we will reject it. If a request violates applicable law but not the community guidelines, we may restrict content in that market,” it said. 

In 2023, TikTok took down content mentioned in half of the government’s requests based on violations of Malaysian laws. The company did not specify the legal or community guidelines said to have been violated according to each request, but added that it takes action based on its own guidelines and relevant local laws.

The number of requests for content removal was 29 times higher last year than the 75 requests in 2022.

TikTok did not immediately respond to a BenarNews request for details on the kinds of posts the government requested be taken down. 

BenarNews also reached out to Malaysia’s Communications Minister Fahmi Fadzil and the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, the internet regulator, for details on why content removal requests were five times higher in the second half of 2023 compared with the first, and 29 times higher in 2023 compared to the previous year. Neither responded.

Malaysia held six state elections on Aug. 12, 2023. From October to November 2022, during the general election, the country saw a surge in hate speech and disinformation online, with hardline parties such as the Islamist PAS using racial rhetoric, studies showed.

In October 2023, the communications minister said that TikTok’s efforts to reduce the spread of fake news in Malaysia has been woefully inadequate and that he had told top management it needed to start following the country’s laws.

In April, he followed up by mandating that all social media platforms, including TikTok and Meta’s Facebook, tighten their policies on harmful content in a move to curb provocative posts on race, religion and royalty – referred to as the 3Rs in Malaysia.

Armed Malaysian troopers guard a truck of rice and other food to aid those affected by race riots in Kuala Lumpur, May 21, 1969. [AP]

The three issues are highly sensitive in the country where ethnic Malay Muslims comprise 70% of the population, ethnic Chinese 22.6% and ethnic Indians 6.6%. The population includes among other religions, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians.

Anwar has reiterated in recent months that his administration would not abide racism and anti-minority sentiment in any form.

Press freedom ranking

In May, when asked about Malaysia’s 34-rank fall in the press freedom index by global watchdog Reporters Without Borders, he said he wasn’t worried. 

“If you allow racism or fascism to flourish or religious bigotry to have a freehold in this country, then you must anticipate the possibility of friction, racial strife and religious disharmony,” he said in a speech during National Press Day that month.

“Of course, we have been criticized … I don’t mind. It doesn’t matter if you downgrade [our rank] because we are tough against the racists and the religious bigots. In my mind, saving this country and protecting the rights of the majority and the minorities is more important than getting high marks or international recognition.”

However, some critics have said that Anwar had been suppressing more than just content he believed caused racial and religious disharmony.

Since becoming prime minister in November 2022, an opposition member had been charged under a colonial-era Sedition Act. Senior journalists and observers also accused Malaysia’s internet regulator of excessive control over the media by censoring content it considered sensitive or critical of the government.

The regulator denied the accusations while Anwar defended the sedition charge last year saying that “when it comes to matters concerning the position and dignity of the rulers, this is something we should uphold and prevent from becoming an unhealthy political discourse.”

Josef Benedict of Asia Pacific for CIVICUS, an alliance of civil society organizations, said Malaysia's requests to take down content should be made more transparent.

“While some requests may be legitimate, intervening with or removing content affects the rights to freedom of expression and privacy, and can easily lead to censorship,” Josef told BenarNews. 

“Takedown orders must be necessary and proportionate, provided for by law, and in pursuit of a legitimate aim.”

An academic, Benjamin Loh, said many laws needed to be scrapped or changed.

“The core definitions under [the Sedition Act] that serve as the foundation for 3R enforcement are vague and unclear, which is why it desperately needs reforms to curb potential abuses of power by the government,” Loh, a senior lecturer in the School of Media and Communication at Taylor's University, told BenarNews.

“This is a little tricky, as parts of the race, religion, and royalty [issues] are indeed in need of regulation due to the presence of groups that engage in hate speech.”


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