PM takes two steps backwards with Web warning

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Charter 2000-Aliran is deeply disturbed by Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s warning to rein in those who supposedly ‘spread untruths and slander’ using the Internet and cell-phone text messages.

We understand the gravity of slander and lies in public life, but we feel that such a warning does disservice to blogs, portals and websites that provide democratic space for well-intentioned discourses on politics, economics and culture. A nation, as we know, doesn't live on bread alone. These alternative sites have provided intellectual and political nourishment, which is vital for the growth of a nation.

Abdullah's warning also may be construed as a veiled and unjustified government attempt to censor the Internet, thereby going back on the Mahathir administration’s public pledge not to do so. Equally disturbing is that the premier’s remarks signals a dramatic reversal of his electoral promise to introduce meaningful reforms and to promote accountability, good governance and transparency.

Malaysians who long for broader freedom of expression are most disheartened to learn of Abdullah’s move to monitor and effectively censor the communication of views and ideas – even to the level of monitoring cell-phone text messages. This would have far-reaching implications for democracy. Right-minded Malaysians are appalled by this turn of events. Notions such as ‘untruths’ are often subject to the final decision of the Executive which can be quite arbitrary. Such arbitrariness can have a crippling effect on Internet users, making them more wary, overcautious, even scared and prompting them to practise self-censorship.

And what does this incoherent statement really mean: ‘If information in blogs… compelled the public to lose faith in the nation’s economic policies’?  Are Malaysians to believe that the government’s economic policies are cast in stone so that the public is compelled to have confidence in them for eternity despite obvious social contradictions and shortcomings staring them in the face? Should a discussion on economic policies in a sober and mature manner on the Internet be construed as trying to create social instability?

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The mark of a thriving democracy is when citizens are able to discuss, agree or disagree in the most intellectual fashion possible. Since this space is not available elsewhere, the Internet fulfils a pressing need. The government needs reminding that the more curbs are imposed on public communication, the more they are likely to spawn a culture of gossip, backbiting and rumour mongering. The government would then fall out of touch with the needs and desires of the very people it supposedly serves. If the Abdullah administration is serious about extricating Malaysians from a “Third-World mentality” syndrome, the most logical and democratic thing to do would be to lift the curbs on the peoples’ right to communicate, to discuss and to dissent.  

Dr Mustafa K Anuar & Anil Netto

Coordinators, Charter 2000-Aliran

3 August 2006

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