Censored voices: How Malaysia silenced thousands on TikTok in 2023

MYRIAMMIRA/FREEPIK

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Malaysians Against Death Penalty and Torture (Madpet) is perturbed about the recent disclosure that the Malaysian government had been acting violating the people’s freedom of expression by requesting TikTok to remove posts and delete TikTok accounts.

In July-December 2023, there were 1,862 government requests. For the whole of 2023, there were about 2,202 such requests, and TikTok did as Malaysia wanted in most cases.

How many of the suspects responsible for these posts or accounts have even been investigated, charged in court, tried and convicted for crimes? If there are none or just a few, then the Malaysian government’s action is deplorable, unjust and an abuse of power.

TikTok’s recent bi-annual report on government removal requests from 1 July-31 December 2023, which was released 6 June 2024, revealed the anti-freedom of expression activities by the government of Malaysia.

During this period, the rights of 1,862 persons (or maybe fewer) whose posts were removed or accounts deleted were denied. Other TikTok users, estimated to be about 20 million in Malaysia, were denied the right to read or consider these deleted posts.

Figures published in ByteDance’s advertising resources indicate that TikTok had 28.7 million users aged 18 and above in Malaysia in early 2024.

No censorship or cancelation of accounts, directly or indirectly, without right to be heard

Were those whose posts were deleted or accounts closed even made aware that the government caused it and the reason it did so?

Were the victims of these violations of rights by the government even accorded the right to be heard before the Malaysian government asked TikTok to remove users’ contents or delete their accounts?

Or did the government simply hide from the victims the fact that it was the government itself that was behind this ‘censorship’ and deletion of their TikTok accounts or posts?

Just like detention without trial, these acts of censorship and discontinuing accounts are arbitrary decisions of the executive branch of government, possibly the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim or others. This is simply unjust and unacceptable in a democracy, more so by the co-called ‘reformist’ Pakatan Harapan-led government of Anwar Ibrahim.

Censorship should be after a court order for the required checks and balances to prevent abuse?

The censorship or deletion of accounts should never be done without a court order. Ex-parte orders and injunctions can be speedily obtained, and the suspected breaker of laws will also have the right and opportunity to challenge such interim orders in court. It is the courts that should be empowered to decide.

It is best that our independent courts determine what is against the law – not the government or even the prime minister – before ordering any censorship.

The government should never alone, without a court order, censor or remove posts that are critical of government actions or positions. Malaysia must always promote and defend freedom of expression, opinion and the press.

After all, despite the calls of many, including the Malaysian human rights commission Suhakam, the non-repeal of the Sedition Act and Section 233 and other draconian provisions of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 to date may be indicative of the kind of government that Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim wants.

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Sadly, this government continues to use these draconian laws.

After all, as an example, the Sedition Act unjustly criminalises “seditious tendency”, which is doing or expressing something, even though it is true or a justified opinion, that causes just a tendency to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against any government, among others.

So this can so easily be used to suppress opposition to the government, freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

Were draconian laws like Sedition Act used to justify the government’s request to TikTok? Be transparent and reveal it.

Presume that when your website, apps or email is blocked, it is the government that did it?

If not for what was highlighted in the recent Tik Tok report, many would have been misled to believe that their rights had been violated simply because of the wrongdoings of TikTok. This would have been not accurate as it has now been revealed that Tik Tok violated our rights at the request of the Malaysian government itself. What would the government have done if TikTok did not ‘obey’ its requests?

The duty of any good democratic government is promoting freedom of expression – not suppressing it by censorship, either directly or indirectly.

The government should be acting against TikTok and other apps when they act to prevent our freedom our expression by blocking posts and deleting user accounts.

Can Malaysians even rely on the government to act against parties like TikTok and Facebook that violate our freedom of expression?

When action taken against one’s post or account – be transparent

A very important question is whether the victims of censored posts and blocked accounts were informed by the government that it was the government’s doing and about the reason their post or account was blocked.

Even when a person is arrested, he or she is informed of the grounds of arrest. Thus, when a post or account is removed, should not the government tell the user the grounds for this action?

Better still, maybe the MCMC should on its website post information or the grounds for removal of every post or user’s account. It is important that we know who did it to us, whether directly or indirectly.

The government should never hide or act in ‘secret’, violating the people’s right to freedom of expression and opinion. It is also a rights violation of the followers and recipients of these allegedly law-breaking posts.

Be open, inform the alleged perpetrators of the law they broke and why the government is censoring or blocking these posts or accounts.

Malaysia – champion in 2023 in government requests to TikTok to ‘censor’

In July-December 2023, there were 6,789 government requests worldwide – with 1,862 from Malaysia?

In 2023, Malaysia embarrassingly emerged the global champion with 2,202 take-down requests to TikTok in 2023. Australia was placed second with 651 requests. Interestingly, Singapore only made 47 requests.

During the period from July to December 2023, according to TikTok’s report, the Malaysian government requested TikTok to remove content or take down accounts 1,862 times. TikTok complied with 87.8% of these requests.

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Tik Tok and other apps should not be censoring at all, and certainly never at the government’s request unless there is a valid court order. They should not blindly follow the government’s request on the basis of laws that have been allegedly broken.

One should not blame a phone service provider for what people speak over the phone. Likewise, TikTok and other apps should not be blamed for the posts of their users. Neither should online media be blamed for their readers’ comments.

In 2023, under the Pakatan Harapan-led government, the government made about with 2,202 take-down requests. Compared to 2022, the number of requests for content removal was 29 times higher last year than the 75 requests made by Malaysia in 2022.

This makes one wonder whether the previous Perikatan National government, before the current government came into power in November 2022, was so much better in promoting and defending our right to freedom of expression.

Government to act only if law is broken, not because some community guidelines suspected to be violated

Malaysia made 1,862 post removal requests with regard to 6,231 content items. TikTok took action for non-compliance with community guidelines violations (2,514), and for alleged local law violations (2,970).

As for account takedowns, Malaysia requested the taking down of 552 accounts. TikTok took down 368 accounts due to community guidelines violations and 103 accounts due to (local) law violations. TikTok’s level of compliance with Malaysian government requests was 87.8%.

Beside the excuse of alleged violations of the law, the other excuse apparently used by Malaysian government was “community guidelines violations”.

What is this? Malaysia must act only if the law is broken and for no other reason – including some “community guidelines violations”.

After their post or accounts were removed, were they charged and convicted?

From the data provided, there were 1,862 requests by the Malaysian government. So rightfully there would be 1,862 investigations commenced and at least 1,862 persons charged in court for breaking the law. But sadly, we have not seen 1,862 (or fewer) people being charged in court, tried and convicted. Communications Minister Fahmi Fadzil must explain this.

So, is Malaysia only interested in censorship but not criminal prosecution of the alleged perpetrators of crime? This is so wrong as a person’s human rights are being violated based on mere suspicions – not because Malaysian laws had been really broken. 

What happens after Malaysia’s suspicion of law-breaking is proven wrong?

After a completed investigation, when it is shown that the post or the account did not violate any Malaysian law – a fact evident when the alleged suspect or perpetrator is not charged, tried and convicted – it is reasonable to say that the government made a mistake and wrongfully violated people’s rights.

So in the past cases, what then did the Malaysian government, which cause these human rights violations, do? Did it take steps to ask TikTok to restore blocked posts and blocked accounts?

One does not ‘penalise’ or deprive a person’s rights on the basis of suspicion that he or she has committed a crime against Malaysian laws, and after investigations shows that no crime has been committed, leave it and do not do anything to restore the rights violated.

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Malaysia needs to actively get TikTok to uncensor posts and unblock accounts.

Madpet also believes that these users are entitled to an apology and compensation for the temporary deprivation of their rights.

State of human rights in decline

It sad to note that the state of human rights has been in decline following Anwar Ibrahim becoming Prime Minister in November 2022.

Recently, Malaysia had a 34-rank fall in Reporters Without Borders’ global press freedom index. Now, the government is violating one’s freedom of expression.

Madpet calls for an end to the ‘secret’ censoring or blocking of accounts through requests to service providers or app owners. If laws are broken, then the Malaysian government must act in a transparent manner. The alleged suspect must be informed of the grounds and given the right to be heard.

Madpet calls for an immediate revelation of how many of the people with regard to the 2,202 government takedown requests to TikTok in 2023 have been charged and convicted in court.

If they have not been convicted, the presumption of innocence applies, and it must be concluded that no law had been broken and Malaysia had abused its power.

Malaysian government must ask TikTok to restore these suspects’ user accounts and posts. The government must also publicly apologise for its wrong actions. Justly, the victims should be compensated for the government’s wrong actions.

Did the government ensure that TikTok unblock accounts, when the completed investigations revealed no crime, and thus the owners were not charged and convicted in court? This is important if Malaysia truly believes in people’s human rights.

Madpet calls for an amendment of laws that will abolish arbitrary government or ministry actions that may violate our human rights. It is safer to require the obtaining of a court order before any acts of censorship or blocking of accounts is done. The victims’ right to be informed and the right to be heard must be respected.

Madpet calls for transparency and asks Communications Minister Fahmi to reveal immediately the number of government removal requests made to other service providers or App owners like Facebook, Gmail, Google, WhatsApp, Telegram, Instagram, X (Twitter) and other similar apps in 2023 and in 2024. The details of the which law was broken must be revealed. The actions taken against alleged perpetrators of crime must also be revealed.

Madpet urges the Malaysian government to promote and respect people’s right to freedom of expression, opinion and press freedom. No to censorship. Instead, charge and accord a fair trial to those who have broken the law.

Madpet reiterates the call for the abolition of the Sedition Act 1948, Section 233 and similar draconian provisions in the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 and other laws that undermine or deny us our freedom of expression and press freedom. – Madpet

Charles Hector issued this statement on behalf of Malaysians Against Death Penalty and Torture.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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