Internet freedom for Southeast Asia’s third-biggest economy was judged to be only “partly free”, after it scored 43 out of 100 points — the same as Libya — dropping two notches in the Freedom on the Net 2012: A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media report released last week by Freedom House, a US research organisation advocating democracy, political freedom and human rights.
The annual study evaluates each country based on barriers to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights, and traces trends from January 2011 to May 2012. The lower the numerical score, the better the ranking.
Each country is marked on a score from 0 (the most free) to 100 (the least free), which serves as the basis for an Internet freedom status designation of Free (0-30 points), Partly Free (31-60 points), or Not Free (61-100 points).
Malaysia took the 23rd spot, trailing behind the Philippines, South Korea, India and Indonesia among the Asian countries surveyed.
But Malaysia came out ahead of Sri Lanka, Kazakhstan, Thailand, Pakistan, Vietnam, Myanmar and China. Singapore was not included in Freedom House’s global study.
The top five spots in descending order were occupied by Estonia, the United States, Germany, Australia and Hungary, which scored fewer than 20 points out of 100.
The report cited the recent amendments to the Evidence Act 1950, namely Section 114A of the law, which holds the computer or equipment owner liable for seditious content as a very troubling development.
It noted that bloggers and Internet users who were critical of the federal government and royalty have also been subject to arrests, legal harassment, fines and detention — even as it noted such cases had dropped compared to last year.
It also noted the increase in the use of “cybertroopers” deployed by both government and opposition parties to produce either favourable content for themselves or harmful content towards opponents.
It also highlighted the new laws, listing the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act allowing for the interception of communications without a court order in security-related offences, and a broadly worded amendment to the Penal Code criminalising any activity “detrimental to parliamentary democracy” which can be used to criminalise politically sensitive speech.
But Freedom House noted the rise of disproportionate awards for defamation suits filed against bloggers, such as the RM400,000 in damages awarded to the Information, Communications, and Culture Minister, Datuk Seri Rais Yatim.
In other areas, Malaysia’s lack of high-quality infrastructure and the severe digital divide among urban/rural population were cited as major hurdles to access.
But the report acknowledged that the Internet in Malaysia still remains “a relatively unconstrained space for free expression” despite creeping infringements due to an active blogosphere and increasing numbers of active netizens.
Freedom House identified Malaysia as among seven countries, including Russia, that were at risk of suffering greater setbacks to their Internet freedom next year.
“No politically sensitive websites are blocked, and a notorious security law was repealed in early 2012, but other infringements on Internet freedom have emerged in the last year,” Freedom House said in its summary findings.
It noted that news portals and opposition-related websites have been attacked online at “politically critical moments.”
“In the watershed general elections of March 2008, the ruling coalition lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time since 1969, and the use of the Internet for political mobilisation was widely perceived as contributing to the opposition’s electoral gains.
“As Malaysia prepares for another set of highly contentious elections scheduled to take place by April 2013, greater efforts by the government and ruling party to increase their influence over the Internet are anticipated,” it said.