Blogging the bullies and bullying the bloggers

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Zaharom Nain explores the world of blogging in Malaysia. Bloggers are providing a real alternative to the mainstream media and countering the distortions and unravelling the propaganda. No wonder the authorities are sitting up and taking notice.

Whatever the myth and cheap talk about greater media freedom since 2003, the reality is that the mainstream Malaysian media, with a few notable exceptions, have been emasculated over the past thirty years or so through political buy-ups and undemocratic laws. And this pattern continues.

This has been abetted by ongoing processes of socialisation – aimed at cowering future and present media personnel. This is happening in the tertiary educational institutions training potential journalists and broadcasters and in the numerous media organisations.

Into this sad and pathetic media scenario have come the ‘new media’ of the internet.  And with it have come blogs, or more specifically, socio-political blogs – the most recent thorn in the side of not only much of the Malaysian mainstream media, but also their political masters.

For the still-uninitiated, blogs are essentially web journals that can serve to provide commentary on a variety of topics or act as personal diaries.  Blogs also have the ability to allow readers to leave comments, hence are interactive.

Although blog search engine, Technorati, tracked more than 71 million blogs worldwide in May this year, Malaysian bloggers are still a relatively small community – but definitely growing.

Indeed, blogging is evidently the latest urban, largely middle-class, phenomenon in Malaysia.  And this has raised hackles among certain quarters, mainly in the BN coalition.

Over the past year, they have been at pains to impose legislation on blogging and to submit the Internet as a whole to greater government control. It appears they would like to punish critical and outspoken commentators on the internet, particularly sociopolitical bloggers, for not dancing to their tune.

First it was Jeff and Rocky…

Knocked about left, right and centre over the past few months, a number of these Malaysian bloggers, nonetheless, appear to have rolled with the punches and come storming back.  

Four recent incidences, three occurring just over the past month, illustrate the extent to which the new media – especially blogging – have come under the scrutiny of the authorities.

It arguably began with prominent bloggers, Jeff Ooi and Ahiruddin Atan (‘Rocky’), being sued by the New Straits Times Press for defamation in January this year.

The law suits, the first of their kind in Malaysia, galvanised much of the blogging community in Malaysia and spawned the Bloggers United campaign to defend bloggers and freedom of expression.

READ MORE:  In new Malaysia, winners don’t take all

Much of the mainstream media, on the other hand, either remained muted or had a field day publishing comments by BN politicians and other ‘authority’ figures.  These officials admonished ‘irresponsible blogging’ and the ‘subjective reporting’ of events by ‘unprofessional’ bloggers. They often sanctimoniously assumed that mainstream Malaysian journalists are, somehow, more trained, professional and, of course, objective.

And then came Nathaniel…

The assault on bloggers continued, certainly more insidiously, on the evening of 13 July 2007 when Parti Keadilan Rakyat staff member, Nathaniel Tan, was arrested at his office by the Special Branch and detained for four days under the Official Secrets Act (OSA).

Nathaniel, in his account of his arrest and detention on his blog  states that the reasons for his arrest remain rather hazy since it certainly was more of a fishing expedition than an arrest based on evidence.

His ‘crime’, such as it was, was apparently that of being suspected of having access to state secrets, namely documents relating to corruption allegations made on his blog not by Nathaniel himself, but by an anonymous commentator.

Nathaniel believes that the whole exercise of detaining him was simply meant to intimidate him and others. It is difficult to disagree with him, given the way he was treated.


Followed by Raja Petra and wife…

More recently, on 25 July 2007, Raja Petra Kamaruddin was summoned to the Dang Wangi police station in Kuala Lumpur and interrogated for eight hours.  This was after Umno Information Chief and former Selangor Mentri Besar,  Muhammad Muhammad Taib, had lodged a police report against Raja Petra’s hugely popular website, Malaysia Today.

The police report lodged by Muhammad – now immortalised by Raja Petra in his blog  as ‘this ex-Mentri Besar with two Muhammad’s in his name’ – reportedly cited a blog entry in Malaysia Today on 11 July that had allegedly insulted  the King, degraded Islam and incited ethnic hatred and violence.

Not surprisingly, no official charge has thus far been levelled against Raja Petra.  Soon after, however, in yet another farcical episode involving our ‘law enforcers’, Raja Petra’s wife, Marina, was ‘interviewed’ by the police. During the ‘interview’, she reportedly cited sharia law in refusing to answer their questions, presumably leaving more than one potential ‘interviewer’ speechless.
… and a Wee uproar

The fourth, and certainly more widely reported, incident, indicating the importance that authorities are now placing on the Internet, was the brouhaha surrounding the Negaraku amateur rap video.  

The creator of the video, Wee Meng Chee or Namewee, a Malaysian communications undergraduate in Taiwan, had had the temerity to do a rap version of the national anthem, Negaraku-ku. He added narrative criticising some government policies and the Malay community and placed the clip on the popular video sharing website, YouTube.

READ MORE:  Respect privacy; no to monitoring of internet usage in Malaysia

The backlash was absolutely amazing, with accusations of treason and of the desecration of the flag and national anthem being hurled against him. This was on top of the more predictable ones of sedition and sowing ethnic discord.  With hindsight, while these accusations were quite predictable, the death threats against his family members were really quite barbaric and uncalled for.

We can assert that the Negaraku-ku video was certainly not a product of good taste, much thought or maturity (but, hey, he’s only in his twenties).  But when we recall recently having  had much older political ‘leaders’ spouting even more racist bile and wielding the keris while threatening to bathe it in the blood of particular ethnic communities, the shock, anger and horror expressed by many of these politicians at Negarakuku begin to ring terribly hollow, their ongoing hypocrisy coming across clear as day.

Indeed, when the seeds of (ethnic) discontent have been sowed through the imposition of ethnic quotas in almost all spheres of life, and politicians constantly preach the supremacy of one ethnic community over another, surely it would be downright ridiculous and plain stupid not to expect responses from those negatively affected. Responses such as Wee’s, for example.

Notwithstanding the hypocrisy, it is quite obvious that the attacks on Wee have come about at a time when patriotic fervour has been whipped up to fever pitch as the 50-44 celebrations take place. It’s a time when even eating a cake decorated as a Jalur Gemilang is apparently not kosher.


Prelude to the election

And it is also quite obvious that the focus on bloggers and the Internet at this present moment is primarily due to the general election around the corner.  After all, experience tells us that part of the process of preparing for the general election here is to make sure that all possible curbs on dissident voices are in place.

In this context, socio-political blogging represents a relatively new challenge to the state.  With ongoing media control, these bloggers are indeed a welcome development for many, even if the authorities are uneasy with them.

Their contribution lies in the fact that they provide added – if not alternative – information.  They help to carve that space to expand on democracy in a country that’s slowly being starved of it.

Granted, there’s a need to be responsible and not defame; there’s a need to obey the law.  But, by the same token, surely laws are meant to protect the wronged and not for use as a tool of intimidation.

READ MORE:  Respect privacy; no to monitoring of internet usage in Malaysia


Seeing through the myths

It is also a bit rich for the authorities and their puppets in the mainstream media to accuse bloggers of ‘sensationalism’ and ‘irresponsible reporting’ when we see blatant examples of such reporting in the daily tabloids.  The  distortion of Wee’s replies to critics of his video by a local Malay tabloid is a perfect example.

Indeed, the problem with notions of ‘objective’ and ‘responsible’ journalism in Malaysia is that such notions have become synonymous with being non-critical of the BN juggernaut. Hence, when Jeff Ooi was a member of the Gerakan party, his ‘objectivity’ was never questioned.  But when he recently switched to the DAP, suddenly one mainstream English newspaper raised the question of whether he could remain ‘nonpartisan’.

Indeed, being critical, as socio-political Malaysian bloggers constantly are these days, is often enough equated by the authorities with being anti-Malaysia and, wait for it, ‘anti-development’.

But, thankfully, many Malaysians are beginning to see through these myths and mystification.

In this regard, socio-political bloggers of all shades like Raja Petra, Nathaniel Tan, Malik Imtiaz, Amir Muhammad, Jeff Ooi, Marina Mahathir, and, yes, Aliran’s own Anil Netto, provide the necessary counter to much of the spin, especially with the elections looming.

And despite all these years of ‘Merdeka’, the harassment and intimidation by the bully boys will, no doubt, continue, on the pretext of protecting our ‘sensitivities’ and, more importantly, ‘the national interest’.

With this in mind, perhaps Nathaniel Tan’s closing comments on his four-day detention will help us (and surely even the bully boys) comprehend the spirit of these Malaysian socio-political bloggers – quite often young and not-easily intimidated by obsolete and barbaric strong-arm tactics.

Any assumptions that my experience will dissuade other activists and citizens of conscience from exerting all (their energy) in upholding their responsibilities to their parents, their children, and to all of Malaysia are sadly, sadly misplaced.

Merdeka? Merdeka? Merdeka?

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