3 The Struggle for Digital Freedom of Speech
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3 The Struggle for Digital Freedom of Speech The Malaysian Sociopolitical Blogosphere’s Experience Vee Vian Thien Beginning in July 2008, sodomy was featured in most Malaysian sociopolitical blogs and the headlines of Malaysian dailies for several months—a curious phenomenon given that a majority of Malaysians are either deeply religious or morally conservative, or a combination of both. Also, sodomy is a criminal offense in at least 78 countries including Malaysia.1 The media interest was inspired by the unique identification of sodomy with the political career of a single man, Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar was charged with the offense once in 1998 when he held office as deputy prime minister of Malaysia , and again in 2008, as de facto leader of the opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat (PR). The timing of both trials could not be more significant. In 1998, the global spotlight was on Malaysia as host of the 1998 Commonwealth Games and for its upcoming 1999 general elections in the midst of the Asian financial crisis. On March 8, 2008, Anwar led PR to a new political dawn as a meaningful adversary to the ruling regime, Barisan Nasional (BN), in the 12th Malaysian general elections. For the first time in Malaysian history, PR stripped BN of its two-thirds majority in the federal parliament.2 The thriving, vibrant, and active Malaysian political blogosphere in its current form owes much to the Anwar sodomy saga. First, Anwar’s trial attracted severe domestic and international criticism, which in combination with the Asian financial crisis created a hostile political atmosphere prior to the 1999 elections for his former mentor, the incumbent prime minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. Mahathir responded by pledging to boost Internet penetration in Malaysia through a series of programs.3 Cumulatively , these programs effected changes necessary for the development of the Malaysian sociopolitical blogosphere. They laid the requisite physical infrastructure for access to broadband connection, that is, high-speed fiber-optic wires and ISPs, and trained a generation of “digital natives.”4 Second, Anwar’s swift coup-style removal from high political office stunned Malaysians into action. In 1998, they formed Reformasi, a grassroots movement protesting his dismal record that united disparate segments of civil society for the first time. This relatively diffuse, single-issue movement transformed into PR, a formidable opponent 44 Vee Vian Thien to BN in 2008. Notably, on both occasions, PR and Reformasi relied heavily on the Internet to evade long-standing governmental control and surveillance of the mainstream media. The year 1998 saw the beginning of political activism on the Internet with the proliferation of pro-Reformasi Web sites.5 In 2008, PR ran a successful campaign on blogs and Web sites, managing to elect blogger-politicians.6 Third, because the constrained and censored mainstream media were unable to satiate the Malaysian public’s hunger for details of Anwar’s high-profile first sodomy trial, this news vacuum enabled Malaysiakini, an award-winning online news portal, to launch itself successfully into the role of a reliable and objective source of uncensored information. Since 2008 the Malaysian government has made numerous attempts at asserting control over the relatively unfettered Internet, citing maintenance of racial harmony in ethnically diverse Malaysia as its regulatory justification.7 These attempts, whether an extension of existing laws or a tabling of regulatory proposals, have been met with ferocious online resistance, especially by the Malaysian blogosphere. To date, the Malaysian government has backed down from its three most drastic regulatory proposals : implementation of a nationwide filter on the Internet, registration of bloggers, and identifying “professional” as opposed to “nonprofessional” bloggers. Although the government has not formally acknowledged these acts as a concession to online pressure, the concession can be inferred from the circumstances. This social pressure is significant in its context—the Malaysian government is not known for retracting or repealing unpopular measures, especially those infringing on civil liberties.8 Malaysian sociopolitical blogs, a subcategory of blogs on matters concerning the governance of state and socioeconomic concerns, figure prominently in the general Malaysian public consciousness and were especially influential in the run-up to the 2008 elections, according to a study conducted by Zentrum Future Studies, a media studies research group.9 Zentrum’s survey polled eligible voters between the ages of 21 and 41 during the election campaign period running from February 20 to March 5, 2008. Zentrum reported that 54.1 percent of 21,000 eligible voters in its nationwide sample...


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