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Government threatens use of draconian laws on bloggers in apparent pre-election crackdown

(SEAPA/IFEX) - The Malaysian government has threatened to invoke draconian laws against bloggers in what appears to be a move to limit information and free expression ahead of the general election expected in early 2008.

On 24 July 2007, de-facto Law Minister Nazri Abdul Aziz warned that bloggers who write about "sensitive issues" will be slapped with the 1960 Internal Security Act (ISA), the 1948 Sedition Act and Section 121b of the Penal Code, while Deputy Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak reminded the media and website operators to be mindful of existing laws when publishing stories that discuss race and religion or risk official action (see IFEX alert of 20 July 2007).

The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), a local communication rights watchdog, said Nazri's statement is the strongest warning yet following a spate of threats levelled against bloggers and online writers over the past months amid rising discontent about religious freedom and political corruption in Malaysia.

The ISA allows for detention without trial and has been repeatedly used to silence critics, while the Sedition Act broadly criminalises "seditious" speech with up to three years of imprisonment or a 5,000 ringgit fine (approx. US$1,454), or both. Section 121b of the Penal Code concerns the offence of waging war against the King, which carries the death penalty or a life sentence.

The government threat to use these laws follows a series of attacks against bloggers launched by the authorities and the ruling party, CIJ notes in a 25 July 2007 capsule report available from its website ( http://www.cijmalaysia.org ).

On 23 July, Muhammad Muhammad Taib, the information chief of the ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), lodged a police report against popular blogger Raja Petra Kamaruddin for allegedly insulting the King. Raja Petra's blog, Malaysia Today ( http://www.malaysia-today.net), is often rife with postings about corruption in the ruling party and the police force, and has been critical of the government (see previous IFEX alert of 26 July 2007).

A fortnight earlier, blogger Nathaniel Tan, who also works for the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), was arrested on 13 July under the Official Secrets Act for a comment posted on his blog ( http://jelas.info ) alleging a deputy minister of corruption. He was released without charge after being detained for five days (see IFEX alerts of 18 and 16 July 2007).

In the same month, on 10 July, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) launched an investigation against blogger Tian Chua based upon a complaint filed by UMNO. Chua, who is also the opposition party PKR's information chief, was investigated over a photomontage on his blog ( http://www.tianchua.net ) that attempted to draw attention to a rumoured and potentially explosive photograph that had been the subject of a sensational ongoing murder trial implicating Abdul Razak Baginda, an aide close to the deputy prime minister (see IFEX alert of 16 July 2007).

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) joins its partner CIJ in condemning the use of such draconian laws as alarmingly and grossly disproportionate against Malaysians who are exercising their constitutional and democratic right to free expression on topics of high public interest.

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