Malaysia: The Madani Government Censorship And Propaganda Regime – OpEd


Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamed in the 1990s pledged the government would never censor the internet. It was Anwar’s so-called ‘reformist’ government that did so.

Now the Madani government has a formidable censorship machine

Fifteen months into Anwar Ibrahim’s rule as prime minister, leading a very unlikely coalition with Pakatan Harapan in a ‘shot-gun marriage’ with its nemesis UMNO, the prospects of re-election as government look very grim. The Madani branded government is failing badly in winning the hearts and minds of voters in the Malay heartlands it needs to retain governemnt, so must utilise other methods to stay in power.

Censorship and propaganda are two of these strategies. 

A new journalist code of conduct springs out of nowhere

Minister of Communications, Fahmi Fadzil on February 20 announced that the government has developed a new code of conduct for journalists. The heavily criticized code of conduct, written by the Information Department (JaPen), contains a number of concerning provisions in regards to the dissemination and verification of content. Transparency, and compliance with ‘established standards’. 

The code of conduct allows the government to define what the ‘truth’ is, and what will be considered ‘dis’ and ‘mis-information’. The provisions related to privacy and confidentiality could be arbitrarily used to force journalists to reveal their sources. 

The code of conduct is just the latest way the government can control and censor what the media can report on the government and its commercial partners. There are many other methods the government has in its tool box to stifle its critics. 

Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC)

The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) has become notorious for its illegal blocking activities of news portal and bloggers websites. The MCMC is undertaking this operation in a wide and systematic way. 

To do the above, the MCMC is taking advantage of legal ambiguities to block bloggers websites. The MCMC doesn’t officially inform website owners they are being blocked for specific reasons. The MCMC acts unilaterally, and denies they have blocked the website. The MCMC requests Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block specific sites on their behalf, thus enabling the MCMC to deny they have blocked any site.

This is dirty censorship. 

The 3Rs (Race, Religion and Royalty) ban

During the last round of state elections in August last year, statements made on the hustings by Kedah Menteri Besar Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor, and his subsequent dramatic arrest and sedition charge provided the government with the opportunity to stifle political speech by reinstituting the 1970s era ban on discussion of the 3Rs (race, religion and royalty). 

This taboo allowed the Barisan Nasional governments of the 1970s and 80s to stifle free speech, particularly criticism of both the government and the apartheid system that was being brought into being, under the guise of the New Economic Policy (NEP). News portals across the country are now using the 3Rs as a basis for self-censorship. 

The 3Rs has taken censorship in Malaysia back to the post May 13, 1969 era. 

Using ‘lawfare’ for censorship and political persecution

The Pakatan Harapan portion of the ‘unity government’ promised on a number of occasions to repeal draconian laws like the Sedition Act, and defamation laws. However, these provisions in the law are now being used extensively to cover up issues of alleged corruption and persecute the whistleblowers. 

The Sedition Act is been used in a number of ways. The first way is to just charge a critic with sedition. However, the using the threat of sedition is usually enough to intimidate critics and remove their content, such as letters to the editor from online news portals, who fear publishing anything that could be construed to be seditious. Another method is to use the police to carry out an investigation of possible sedition, which can lead to the confiscation of laptops, phones, and other materials, and even detention of government critics overnight for ‘questioning’. 

The threat of sedition is a major form of censorship.

Criminal defamation is used by the police in much the same way, the threat of sedition is used. Police harassment can tie up journalists and bloggers time, as they are sometimes held in custody, as a form of intimidation.

Its not just the government that uses defamation laws to silence critics and whistleblowers. Often the government leaves this form of intimidation up to agencies or commercial partners to persecute ‘enemies’. The modus operandi used by these agents of government is to serve legal letters of demand on critics to silence them. Sometimes these matters proceed to court to both intimidate and bankrupt critics. 

Most of the online media is not financially strong. Thus, online media portals cannot afford to enter into lengthy and expensive litigation. 

The government still uses the Official Secrets Act (OSA) to hide behind and withhold information from journalists. The Selangor government has used this tactic to hide information about the business deal concerning the Selangor Maritime Gateway. Many contracts and concessionaires also fall under the OSA, so the terms of agreements can never be made public.

This is the government’s most powerful censorship tool.

The infiltration of social media platforms

Pro-government supporters are employed as content moderators at contractors for social media platforms. Content moderators are able to ‘shadow ban’ user accounts, and take down posts. Content moderators are paid between RM2,500-3,500 per month. 

Surveillance of journalists and government critics

The police Special Branch regularly attends online and physical forums to monitor what is being said by public figures and critics of the government. There is evidence of much more sinister surveillance and spying on journalists and critics, on people who are deemed ‘a person of interest’ by Special Branch. Surveillance software from Senapi Technologies called ‘Rogue Eye’ collects and compiles all online public domain information of a person. In addition, the Malaysian government has been reported to use a notorious program ‘Pegasus’ from an Israeli company NSO Group. Pegasus can be remotely installed on mobile phones and can read text messages, track phone calls, and be used as a tracking device. 

Propaganda operations

The ‘unity government’ has pooled its cybertrooper and propaganda resources to attack and sow disinformation about the opposition. These groups also disseminate propaganda and advise the MCMC on what websites to block.

The most well-known group is the DAPs Red Bean Army (RBA). The RBA is basically a troll operation which attacks anything derogatory about the DAP and ‘unity government’. When in opposition, the RBA spread disinformation about the then government. Now the DAP is a member of the government, the RBA spreads disinformation about the opposition, and propaganda on behalf of the government. PKR has an outfit that now works in tandem with the RBA. 

The ’unity government’ social media propaganda machine under UMNO’s Lokman Adam uses multiple accounts on Facebook, Twitter (X), Instagram, Telegram and Tik Tok to disseminate propaganda. Some groups under this umbrella consist of paid employees. They also operate multiple automated bot accounts, tasked to attack critics. They also pay bloggers and influencers to attack and discredit critics. According to a former DAP Vice chairman Tunku Abd Aziz, some of the funds for these operations came from abroad

The Madani government has over the last 15 months built a censorship apparatus that has stifled free speech in Malaysia to the extent it can now control the main narratives. Very few news portals now provide positive information about the opposition. The unity governments propaganda reach now rivals PAS. This has all come at great cost to free speech and media freedom. This will most likely result in a drastic drop in Malaysia’s position in international rankings this year.  

Murray Hunter

Murray Hunter has been involved in Asia-Pacific business for the last 30 years as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic, and researcher. As an entrepreneur he was involved in numerous start-ups, developing a lot of patented technology, where one of his enterprises was listed in 1992 as the 5th fastest going company on the BRW/Price Waterhouse Fast100 list in Australia. Murray is now an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis, spending a lot of time consulting to Asian governments on community development and village biotechnology, both at the strategic level and “on the ground”. He is also a visiting professor at a number of universities and regular speaker at conferences and workshops in the region. Murray is the author of a number of books, numerous research and conceptual papers in referred journals, and commentator on the issues of entrepreneurship, development, and politics in a number of magazines and online news sites around the world. Murray takes a trans-disciplinary view of issues and events, trying to relate this to the enrichment and empowerment of people in the region.

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