On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Rules of the game have changed

The series of actions, they claimed, was another attempt to stifle dissent in Malaysia, and they alleged that it was an infringement of human and civil rights and the freedom of speech.  

On the other side, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz has come out charging against bloggers, declaring that “the time for talk is over, now is the time to act”.  

He warned that three laws could be used against offending bloggers: the Internal Security Act, the Sedition Act and Section 121b of the Penal Code (which deals with offences against the King, Ruler or Yang DiPertua Negeri and carries a maximum penalty of life in prison).  

Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak said the Government was “deeply troubled” by the growth of “irresponsible” alternative media, adding that “in the name of freedom, these websites allow the broadcast of slander, lies and swearing, use of harsh, degrading language and racial slurs without regard for the reader or those concerned”.  

The Government, he also said, had been tolerant of anti-government positions and criticisms on the Internet but was now “very concerned about statements that insult religion and reek of racism”.  

Let’s take a step back and look at the larger picture. The fact is that there is some truth, as much as some of us would be reluctant to admit, in the arguments of both sides.  

For the Government, there is a sense of frustration that much of what is written by bloggers are untruths or half-truths, often spiced up with lots of imagination to increase the number of eyeballs for their websites. With it reluctance to reply to these allegations, either by posting comments or rebuttals through pro-government bloggers, these allegations remain unchallenged.  

Worse, after a while, and egged on by anti-government postings from readers, they dangerously become the gospel truth. Worse still, not many question the credibility or political biasness, even ambitions, of these bloggers.  

A prominent blogger alleged last week that the Rulers Conference had rejected the extension of the Inspector-General of Police’s tenure by the Prime Minister. The fact is that the issue was not even brought up by the Rulers.  

On another issue, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was criticised for supposedly making too many overseas trips. Wisma Putra, however, has yet to defend the Prime Minister against such allegations.  

But it could have, for example, explained Pak Lah’s visit to Russia. This is one of Malaysia’s biggest trading partners and Petronas is also making inroads into the oil and gas industry there.  

So surely the meeting between Abdullah and Russian President Vladimir Putin was crucial, especially after it had been put off three times. 

Information like this, if effectively used, would neutralise the lies or mistakes on the blogs and could also discredit irresponsible bloggers.  

The fact is blogsphere is here to stay. All the laws will be ineffective in the end because the New Media can be operated anywhere without any censorship. We have to embrace the Internet and the Government simply needs to learn to use the new medium to its advantage.  

It would be worse if critical bloggers decide to hide their identities and therefore frustrate any attempt by the Government to act against them.  

The impression, rightly or wrongly, given to the young by our leaders is that they lack the knowledge and skills of the Internet. This perception is created from statements made by the leaders.  

It is the battle of the hearts and minds. You could say it is a psychological war between the dissenters and the Government and the latter has to take on its critics. It can do so by recruiting pro-government bloggers – there’s a whole battalion of them out there.  

On the flipside, our bloggers cannot deny that not many of them bother to check or verify the statements they make. Even Malaysia Today’s Raja Petra Kamaruddin, who was questioned by the police last week, has called for caution in the postings by readers.  

It cannot be denied that many of the postings, even though these are not articles by the bloggers, are inflammatory. Many are downright racist, slanderous and libellous.  

The use of four-letter words has been allowed to go through without any moderator to delete them. Bloggers cannot criticise our Members of Parliament for using unparliamentary language when they themselves allow such obscenities on their blogs.  

Bloggers must admit that freedom of speech does not mean freedom to slander or to libel. If civil suits are taken against them, it is simply because others have been offended, if not emotionally or financially affected, by their words.  

Their victims have rights too, and bloggers should not assume that they have the monopoly over civil rights.  

Like print and electronic journalists, they must live by the same rules when it comes to defamation, libel and other laws relating to national security. But there is a difference: they don’t need to answer to the Internal Security Ministry for a printing permit.  

The question is: has our Government also over-reacted – to the point of making police reports and threatening tough laws, including the ISA – against our bloggers? There are probably only a handful of active and loud dissenting voices among the thousands of Malaysian bloggers.  

The rest, including children and grandchildren of our leaders, are more interested in writing about their personal lives, music, fashion, and probably about their teachers.  

In a country of about 25 million people, there are about 3.7 million Internet subscribers but there are no official estimates on the page views of our political blogs.  

However, they may get a million page views a day when there is a hot issue. Online versions of newspapers have up to 40 million page views a month. So really, it is the mainstream newspapers that continue to garner the most attention.  

The good news, according to the World Association of Newspapers in a study, is that the young have not given up on newspapers.  

But the bad news is that family and friends are trusted more than traditional media.  

The study also said the usage of new media, such as computers, mobile phones, the Internet and MP3 players, is increasingly taking up time that would otherwise be spent on traditional media.  

Politics is also not the most important issue to most Malaysians, especially the young. A cursory check of the online versions of newspapers would show that crime, celebrity gossip and sports remain the most-read items.  

It’s a blow to their ego but, really, our bloggers are not as powerful as they think they are, or as the Government makes them out to be.  

Issues are being created because some of our politicians simply shoot themselves in the foot; for example, Kinabatangan MP Datuk Bung Mokhtar Radin and Jasin MP Datuk Mohd Said Yusof over the “bocor” issue. 

If politicians like them get rapped, they should not blame anyone, whether bloggers or print journalists, for their fallacies. Neither should they fall back on the arguments of race, religion or political affiliation to get out of the mud.  

Should some politicians have a credibility problem, especially among the urban young, they just have to work on their image. The use of threats will not work in the long run as the new generation turns more and more to the Net.  

Worse, any form of action could lead to suspicion that those in authority cannot tolerate criticism because they fear their positions would be challenged.  

The Government has to face the harsh reality: It no longer has control over media technology and mainstream media is being challenged by an alternative media that answers to no one.  

Cyberspace is a new political frontier and the fact is the rules of the game have changed.