Malaysia: Violence, cyber attacks threaten elections

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Malaysia’s ruling party and opposition leaders should rein in their supporters to end intimidation and violence that threaten general elections slated for 5 May 2013, Human Rights Watch said today.

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The Royal Malaysian Police should fully and impartially investigate alleged attacks on party members and supporters on both sides.

Election-related violence targeting events organised by parties in the ruling Barisan Nasional and the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalitions has escalated as the election has approached, according to police reports. Calls by the two competing coalitions have so far failed to stem the violence. Cyber attacks on online news services have undercut election-related speech.

“Election violence threatens the right of all Malaysians to vote for the party of their choice,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Political leaders should demonstrate their commitment to democratic elections by taking firm action against their members and supporters who are responsible.”

Party workers, activists, and online news portals targeted

Violent incidents escalated after the start of official election campaigning on 20 April, Human Rights Watch said. Prior to that, political harassment was primarily limited to blocking access to meetings, loud noise, stone and egg throwing, and paint smearing on trucks and houses, though some violence has taken place. For example:

  • In mid-April in Georgetown, Penang State, five assailants seriously beat two men putting up opposition party flags;
  • On 23 April, unidentified people set off an explosive device at a Barisan Nasional rally in northern Penang state that injured a security guard;
  • On 25 April, assailants threw petrol bombs at a Barisan Nasional office outside of Kuala Lumpur, the capital; and
  • On the same day, unknown attackers torched the car of Pakatan Rakyat candidate Xavier Jayakumar’s daughter at her home.
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Well-planned attacks on the websites of several Malaysian news services and online newspapers providing coverage of opposition candidates also raise serious freedom of speech concerns prior to the 5 May polls, Human Rights Watch said.

Since 20 April, Malaysiakini, a popular online newspaper that is often critical of the government, has experienced technical interference that has prevented users from accessing its website from inside Malaysia. Readers have experienced slow-downs or sudden drops in service when browsing the website, which has been unpredictable and varied in time. It is unclear whether current disruptions are the result of interference by Internet service providers (ISPs) or by some other actor at centralised Internet gateways that connect Malaysia to the global Internet. Malaysiakini has been the target of distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) attacks in the past. On 28 April, the newspaper reported that several of its Twitter accounts had been hacked and taken over; the accounts were recovered on 30 April.

On 11 April, a major DDOS attack brought down three London-based radio web portals – Radio Free Malaysia, Radio Free Sarawak, and Sarawak Report – that have regularly been critical of the Malaysia federal government and the state government of Sarawak. The attack, emanating from computers around the world, generated over 130 million hits on the three websites in the course of three-and-a-half hours, rapidly overwhelming them. All three websites were only able to return to full operation on 16 April.

Radio Free Malaysia, which began operations in March 2013, delivers election-related news to Sarawak’s urban population and openly supports Pakatan Rakyat. Radio Free Sarawak and the Sarawak Report, which broadcast primarily to indigenous people in Sarawak’s rural areas, frequently report on government corruption and criticise government policies affecting rural residents. In addition to the DDOS attacks, since the start of the election period Radio Free Sarawak broadcasts in the Iban language over shortwave radio lost clear transmission after jamming with noise transmitted on the same shortwave frequency.

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“Ensuring everyone can access information without interference is critical if there is to be a level political playing field in Malaysia,” Robertson said. “The government has a duty to investigate and shut down all cyber attacks, interference with ISPs, and hacking so that freedom of expression and the right to receive information is preserved.”

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