Blogger arrested under Official Secrets Act, another under investigation; symptomatic of clampdown on online expression, says SEAPA
SEAPA protests the detention of the 26-year-old blogger, Nathaniel Tan, and shares the concerns of the Kuala Lumpur-based Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) that the arrest may be symptomatic of an emerging clampdown on online expression in Malaysia. This year alone, two bloggers and one news site are being sued for defamation and a task force has been set up to look at how existing laws can be used to circumvent Malaysia's Bill of Guarantee against Internet censorship.
On 13 July 2007, Tan, who is also a webmaster of the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat, was taken from his office in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, at 4:30 p.m. (local time) by three plainclothes policemen, according to Tan's colleagues. He was remanded for four days in connection with Section 8 of the OSA on suspicion of possessing "official secrets". A link posted on his blog ( http://jelas.info ) connects to a website that accuses Deputy Internal Security Minister Johari Baharum of accepting bribes in exchange for the release of people detained under Malaysia's Emergency Ordinance, a law dealing with internal security that allows for detention without trial.
Johari had been the subject of an official investigation, which cleared him of the bribery allegations on 12 July.
Interestingly, on the same day Tan was remanded, national news agency Bernama reported that Johari had tasked the police to track down writers who "spread lies through websites" - specifically those who direct criticisms against government leaders.
"The deputy minister's instruction smacks of vengeance against bloggers and shows total disregard for freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under the Constitution," CIJ said in a 15 July statement calling for Tan's release ( http://www.cijmalaysia.org/display_story.asp?ID=520 ).
If found guilty of violating the OSA, Tan could face one to seven years' imprisonment.
Echoing CIJ's call, local human rights group Suaram said the police need not have arrested Tan as the Criminal Procedure Code allows them to summon people for questioning. In a 14 July release, Suaram said the police action was done "in bad faith" as the arresting officers did not identify themselves as the police, nor inform Tan that he was being arrested. Initially, Tan was also not allowed access to his lawyer.
Tan's lawyer, R Sivarasa, who is also the opposition party's vice-president, condemns the detention as "politically motivated" and "purely an act of oppression."
"The remand serves no purpose except to put him under duress. He has given his full cooperation; they have taken documents, CD-Roms and computers . . . This is a 'fishing' expedition. There is clearly another agenda behind this," he said on 14 July after the hearing for Tan's remand.
Tan, who blogs about social and political issues, is the second blogger to face official action within three days. On 10 July, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) launched an investigation into Tian Chua, a well-known activist and Tan's senior in the opposition party, for his photomontage on http://www.tianchua.net/ that alluded to the ongoing trial of a high-profiled murder of a Mongolian, which implicated an elite police unit, bearing repercussions to the upper political echelons.
A case similar to Tan's happened in July 2005, when a website owner had to remove the links to another website that contained police reports and internal police communications after he was warned that he could be charged under the OSA, although none of the documents was marked secret.
Meanwhile, independent news site "Malaysiakini" is being sued by the chief minister of the state of Sarawak, Abdul Taib Mahmud, over articles alleging him and his family of corruption (see IFEX alert of 17 May 2007), while bloggers Jeff Ooi and Ahirudin Attan are being sued by a major government-associated news group, the New Straits Times Press, and its top executives over articles that called into question the group's journalism ethics (see alerts of 1 February and 19 January 2007).