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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

OCTOBER 15, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 41

Rumors, Lies and Libel
The uncensored Internet needs laws on defamation
By SUBHADRA DEVAN


photo
Subhadra Devan
is a freelance journalist in Kuala Lumpur

E-commerce, e-government and a slew of other computer-related services are being offered to Malaysians. But it seems that the government is in a catch-22 situation when it comes to rumors, lies, hate, racism and other "exciting" topics on the Internet. Despite the racial slurs and licentious statements posted at times, the government is not about to shut down web sites critical of it. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has given an undertaking that there will not be censorship.

The alternative publication Harakah says Malaysians are most interested in anti-government websites. (A quick check reveals pornography websites have as many, if not more, hits.) Prominent among the postings on anti-government sites are virulent criticisms of policies, rumors about all the prime minister's men, family and friends, half-truths (as well as some valid discussion) about current events and sub judicial comments about the Anwar Ibrahim trial.

Singapore's Straits Times observes that "most of the webmasters are unabashedly partisan. They would never post anything that might damage their hero, Anwar" - the former deputy prime minister. So saner Net surfers have to put up with postings like one that detailed a supposed plan to kill Anwar in Kuala Lumpur's Sungei Buloh Prison in "X-Files" style.

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Net surfers cannot take as plain truth much that is posted about current events. This is a pity as the Net does discuss some issues that do not see daylight in the mainstream media due to various factors, including the prevailing interpretation of the Official Secrets Act and the Internal Security Act. Meanwhile, Net postings detailing the "secret bank accounts" of Malaysian ministers have been disproved, as have frequent reports of Mahathir's death and various illnesses. Still, many Malaysians choose to believe sensational lies over the boring facts.

That there are no controls on the export, import or domestic use of cryptography in Malaysia - unlike in Singapore and the U.S. - should build confidence in the Multimedia Super Corridor project. But while the MSC's long-term success may seem, to some, to hinge on complete cyber-liberty and no Net censorship, what about defamation and libel? Not peculiar to Malaysia, this question is a global one.

On the home-front, Parliament last year approved the Communications and Multimedia Bill, which prohibits most interceptions of communications while authorizing police to intercept any without a warrant if a public prosecutor considers they are likely to contain information relevant to an investigation. Then there is the Telecommunications Act, which covers false transmission of news on the Internet.

The characteristics of the Internet make it impossible for government and educational institutions to regulate the stuff posted on it. One technology publication notes that this "inchoate medium of unfettered individual freedom" has many paths to the same destination. Usenet groups are international, and the Internet is a boundary-less medium. Britain's MI6 officers can be named by an American and the names posted on the Net in their country, shaking traditional notions of official secrecy. And the laws of one country do not hold in another.

As yet few instances of Net abuse have been reported in the ASEAN region. But libelous postings, which can cause immense damage to individuals and companies, do open a minefield. Under Malaysia's Defamation Act 1957, the libelous statement must not be an opinion but based on fact. The Net surfer must be aware that the individual is the subject of the false statement and there has to be evidence of loss or injury from the written words. Given the anonymity of the Internet and its worldwide scope, proving libel and finding the identity of the abuser may take an army of sleuths.

According to the Computers & Law website, Singapore has the strongest libel laws in the world. Providers and publishers there must register themselves. They are liable for content placed on the Internet, where libel laws for print media apply. News reports say that Singapore's cybercafes are confounding the enforcers. According to The Straits Times, the country faces a "similar dilemma as the British and American courts: viewing the cybercafe owner as a newspaper vendor or as a publisher." Singapore also has an education program to teach students how to use the Internet responsibly.

This "netiquette" is much wanting in some Malaysian usergroups. Malaysians have been banned time and again from Internet chat rooms; some U.S.-based networks have taken this action. Given sites such as the freewheeling freeMalaysia, the reader should apply to the Net the same standards as he should apply to the mainstream media - with a healthy dose of skepticism and an open mind.

While pro-Anwar sites may offer many hours of fun reading, libel suits for material posted on the Net promise to be an exciting and volatile area of law in Malaysia. Given the global nature of the Internet and the long-term concerns of the MSC vis-á-vis the interests of the country, an international approach to handling Internet libel may be the most realistic.

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