Despite government assurances, Bangkok-based Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa) has expressed concern that the proposal to implement an online media registration system is aimed at controlling independent news websites.
Seapa executive director Edgardo Legaspi told Malaysiakini that the scheme appears to be an attempt to extend the controls it already has on the print media to the online media as well.
“We have already seen how in the past printing licences of Malaysiakini and The Edge were withheld by the government.
“While assuring that the registration is a harmless, easy process, we must ask what happens if a registration of an online news portal is revoked.
“Introducing a registration regime for online news seem to be clearly targeted at controlling channels of critical news that the printed media has not provided,” he said when contacted.
On Tuesday, Communications and Multimedia Minister Salleh Said Keruak reportedly said his ministry has sent proposals for the scheme to the Attorney-General's Chambers.
This entails legal amendments that would compel online news portals and blogs to register with the government, according to a report by the Malay Mail Online quoting the minister.
However, Salleh said the move is not intended to quell dissent but to bring existing laws in line. Exemptions from registration may be made for non-political blogs.
This appears to be an attempt to implement a de facto licencing regime on online media.
Under the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) 1984, a government licence is required to print publications or to operate printing presses. The home minister has the power to revoke the licence at any time.
Activists have long argued that this forces newspapers to toe the line or risk losing their right to print, although a 2012 amendment has allowed the minister's decisions to be challenged in court.
No such restrictions currently apply to the online media.
Clamping down on dissent
Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) director Jac SM Kee echoed Seapa's concern that the proposed scheme would extend PPPA-like controls to the online realm.
She said while such schemes are purported to improve the quality of online content, it would backfire instead.
“There has been no research, no study, and no evidence anywhere in world to show that compulsory registration of bloggers contributes to this (improving of online content).
“In fact, what it has done is to create a much more negative impact on the quality of information, because it has a chilling effect.
“What it enables is to allow governments to start targeting specific bloggers and control the type of contents that they want to see or hear.
“If there is anything critical – and the role of the media is to raise critical questions – the government will now have the legal means and instrument to clamp this down,” she told Malaysiakini .
She added that blogger registration would pose a personal risk to bloggers as well, if they are reporting 'difficult' issues.
As an example, she said many Mexican bloggers reporting about criminal activities had been executed by drug cartels.
“Imagine if they were registered, imagine if their information was available, all of these citizen journalism that help to save lives, make communities safer, would be impossible,” she said when contacted.
No valid reasons
Meanwhile, Lawyers for Liberty executive director Eric Paulsen said there is no good or valid reasons to require the registration of news portals or blogs, except as a means to restrict information critical of the government.
He said the government should embrace the internet, instead of taking a step backwards by stifling it.
“The authorities must be reminded that real crimes are not to be found online in news websites and blogs and on social media. It would be more prudent for the government to come to terms with the reality of the vast and borderless internet and social media age where anybody, in good faith or otherwise, can write or comment on any issues […]
“Let the public and market forces decide whether a particular news website or blog had been credible, useful or otherwise as readers are unlikely to continue visiting these sites if they are filled with unfounded, exaggerated or implausible content,” he said in a statement last night.
At the same time, journalists group Gerakan Media Marah (Geramm) also expressed concern over the proposed scheme, especially the lack of consultation with stakeholders such as online media owners and practitioners.
“We urge the ministry to hold a meeting with portal owners and their respective journalists before proceeding further with the proposal.”