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Malaysia: New Social Media Guideline Silences Free Speech, Critics Say

Ray Sherman
Kuala Lumpur
2017-05-05
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The WhatsApp mobile messaging service logo, Dec. 28, 2016.
The WhatsApp mobile messaging service logo, Dec. 28, 2016.
AFP

Civil rights groups and internet group-chat administrators said Malaysia’s new guideline for social media and messaging platforms is a tool to silence government critics and obstruct freedom of expression.

The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) late Wednesday released a list of six do’s and six don’ts targeted to administrators of WhatsApp and other platforms including Facebook, WeChat, Viber and Telegram.

“Such guidelines are intrusive into the privacy of citizens and their freedom of speech and certainly inconsistent with democratic practices,” Lawyers for Liberty executive director Eric Paulsen told BenarNews on Friday.

He called the guideline unnecessary and pushed for the MCMC to tackle real internet crimes, including criminal intimidation and scams.

The do’s outlined by the MCMC include: administrators should make clear the reason for the chat group; establish ground rules; comment on posts to ensure the discussion stays on track; consider removing those who consistently post inappropriate content; and cooperate with by enforcement agency investigations.

Its don’ts for administrators include: don’t be absent from their groups; don’t breach conditions set by the platform providers; don’t encourage or incite offensive posts; don’t allow discussions to wander off topic; don’t be afraid to deal with “trolls”; and don’t hinder investigations by enforcement agencies.

Warning issued

The guideline followed a warning by Deputy Communications and Multimedia Minister Jailani Johari on April 27 that WhatsApp group-chat administrators would face legal action for failing to stop the spread of fake news.

MCMC clarified his statement by adding other social media groups to the warning and said investigations would be carried out only if complaints were made about content being shared by the group.

“It should be stressed that any investigation will not differentiate between an administrator and a member of the group. If the administrator or any member of the group were found to spread false information, then legal action can be taken against them,” MCMC stated at the time.

Wednesday’s guideline targeted administrators only.

Critics pointed out that punishment provisions exist under the Communication and Multimedia Act targeting the spread of fake news, libel, fraud and exposure of classified information under the Official Secrets Act. The new guideline does not establish new or additional punishments.

“It is an excuse to crackdown and intimidate government critics, rather than a sincere or practical attempt at addressing real issues,” Paulsen said.

On Friday, Communications and Multimedia Minister Salleh Said Keruak said MCMC merely was advising users and has no “involvement in any activities of spying conversations.”

“Hence, beware of fake news,” he told The New Straits Times.

Shamini Darshni, the executive director of Amnesty International Malaysia, disagreed, saying these platforms should be places to freely express beliefs and ideas without fear of interference.

“The MCMC guideline does nothing to protect the shrinking space for free expression,” she told BenarNews. “The guideline’s purpose is unclear and there should be an explanation.”

A Whatsapp administrator, who asked to be identified as Patrick, asked whether a special team will “snoop into people’s private conversations.”

“If the action is taken based on complaints, what if there is a ‘snitch’ in my group who lodges a false complaint against me with the authorities? Will I be hauled up for that?" the marketing executive who manages several WhatsApp groups among family and work colleagues told BenarNews.

Another administrator had similar concerns.

“Often, those who share unverified news in my family group are the elderly family members. I have often corrected them, saying it is a hoax, but when they keep doing it, how can I ‘warn’ them, or kick them out of the group?" an administrator of several Whatsapp groups who asked to be identified as Sheena told BenarNews.

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