KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 26 Next up: a crackdown on bloggers. This possibility looms large after the government reached a sober assessment that it could all end in tears for the Barisan Nasional at the next general election if tough action is not taken to counter allegations on the Net and hold owners of blogs accountable.
This conclusion was reached during a meeting last week involving several Cabinet ministers and senior government officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak.
Government officials noted that some 400,000 new voters are registered each year. Assuming that the next polls are in five years, there would be two million new voters the next time the BN seeks a fresh mandate. A large chunk of these two million voters are likely to obtain their news and information from websites and blogs, and not from the mainstream media.
Several ministers noted that if the government followed its current policy of allowing allegations by bloggers to go unchallenged, this would create the perception that the information being posted is accurate.
"There is a growing consensus in government that those who run websites and blogs should be held accountable and this means that laws should be used to take action against those who defame and spread disinformation.
"If not, we are going to have a situation where everyone will be free to make all sorts of allegations with no downside at all. There is a fear that the trust level with BN would be very low if nothing is done, '' said a senior government official familiar with details of the meeting.
The prevailing mood in the government against the alternative media is one of frustration. After decades of being able to control newspapers and television stations through a raft of legislation, government officials and politicians are finding that their tools are useless in setting boundaries for new media.
At last week's meeting, an official of the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) explained that the authorities have not come down hard on websites and bloggers because Section 3 of the Communications and Multimedia Act prohibits any form of censorship.
But government officials corrected him and said that the guarantee that the Internet would not be censored did not preclude legal action from being taken against bloggers for defamation and sedition.
They pointed out that the Singapore government had hauled several bloggers to court for a series of offences and suggested that the Malaysian government should follow suit. In the aftermath of Election 2008, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said that the government paid a heavy price by allowing accusations and reports on the Internet to go unchallenged.
He said that the BN underestimated the power of the Internet and committed a serious misjudgment by relying on the mainstream media in the run-up to the general election. His comments resulted in the Information Ministry reaching out to some prominent bloggers and giving them some air-time on television but by and large the relationship between the alternative media and the government has remained testy.
In recent months, Raja Petra Kamaruddin, the country's best-known political blogger, has had a running battle with Najib and his wife, implicating both of them in the October 2006 murder of Mongolian model Altantuya Shariibuu. The DPM has also been on the receiving end of other damaging allegations.
His supporters in Umno have been pushing for a more hardnosed approach in dealing with bloggers and operators of news portals, arguing that the softer touch by the Abdullah administration has resulted in daily attacks on ministers and BN politicians.
Critics of the government said that instead of focusing on bloggers and the alternative media, they should strive for more accountability and transparency, and remove the shackles on the mainstream media.