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Malaysia's consideration of online regulation raises concern

The Centre for Independent Journalism views any online licensing effort as a means to control online media and in effect, an effort to stifle dissenting opinions.

In a media monitoring exercise of GE13 (13th general election) coverage run by CIJ in collaboration with University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, of all types of media which were monitored - online, newspapers, television and state media (Bernama and RTM) - online news portals performed the best, giving approximately equal quantities and quality of coverage to both BN (Barisan Nasional) and Pakatan Rakyat. CIJ believes a key contributing factor is that online media - unlike its print and broadcast counterparts - is not regulated by the state and has more room to practice independence and fairness in reporting.

Any form of online censorship, however indirect (e.g. through licensing), will affect access to information to media portals, currently the choice of urban, young and middle-class reading public - the very constituencies which contributed heavily to BN government's worst showing in the recent general elections.

We hope Information Minister Shabery Cheek's suggestion to study how online media can be regulated is not another step to teach Malaysians a lesson in voting for Pakatan Rakyat collectively more than for BN.

At best, the Minister's mulling over licensing is a cowardly idea lacking in imagination. There is no reason to copy Singapore's move, given our neigbour's poor standing in any world press freedom ranking.

Minister Shabery Cheek mentioned that social media has become mainstream media. Has the Minister thought about how to implement licensing on Twitter and Facebook accounts - run by commercial Internet giants - which have more than 50,000 followers/likes? Singapore's licensing move covers websites that report regularly on issues relating to Singapore and those with 50,000 unique visitors from Singapore for a month over two months.

Online media enjoys strong support from the Netizens - even for portals which require subscription. They are a source of news not just for those in Malaysia but also for the international community. Any form of licensing imposed on online media will be strongly opposed by civil society in Malaysia and the borderless online community.

The Information, Communication and Culture Ministry is one of two bodies responsible for upholding MSC Malaysia's Bill of Guarantee No.7 - to ensure no censorship of the Internet - is respected. It needs to take steps to promote the exchange rather than curb the flow of information on the Internet.

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