Message apps are the latest technology to fall under the control of Malaysia’s controversial Communications and Multimedia Act.
Is nothing safe anymore? The Malaysian government threatened on Thursday to jail the admins of WhatsApp group chats who failed to crack down on the spread of fake news or hoaxes, calling misinformation on the popular messaging app a threat to national security, according to reports in local media.
“If the admin was directly involved or allowed false information to spread intentionally, he will be punished,” said Johari Gilani, the deputy minister of communications and multimedia.
Police could charge WhatsApp admins under the country’s existing communications and multimedia act, a law passed in 1998 that human rights groups say is routinely used to quell dissent and block websites critical of Malaysia’s embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak and his ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.
“The Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) has been used to block websites reporting on corruption, penalize radio stations for airing discussions of matters of public interest, and arrest and prosecute users of social media,” wrote Human Rights Watch in a report on efforts to combat freedom of speech in Malaysia titled “Creating a Culture of Fear.”
The CMA law is being stretched here to declare that admins of WhatsApp groups are basically a single-person service provider, making them accountable for any content the government deems as “indecent, obscene, false, menacing, or offensive in character with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person.” None of those terms are strictly defined under the CMA, which allows the police and government significant sway when deciding how—and when—to use the law.
“It is a wide piece of legislation where they can catch a lot of postings,” Syahredzan Johan, an attorney who handled a lot of CMA cases told HRW. “Police are actually acting on private complaints, launching investigations under sedition or refer to the MCMC [Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission].”
The CMA law, along with the sedition act, effectively polices the internet, shutting down complaints and criticism in a country where the central government has its hands in all traditional media through a publication licensing scheme that can be revoked at any time.
“Media is controlled by the government,” Syahredzan explained. “So the Internet is the place for anti-government sentiment. People are more aware of their rights and they want to express their views.”
It causes many Malaysians turn to social media to find alternative sources of news. But the government also polices social media sites, using the CMA law to punish critics on Facebook and Twitter as well. When political artist Fahmi Reza posted a cartoon image of PM Najib Razak’s face done up in clown make uponline, he was charged with both sedition and violating the CMA—charges that together could land Reza in jail for as many as three years.
“The government is good at abusing different laws and using it against their critics to silence [them],” Reza told the Australian news broadcaster SBS during a recent visit to Melbourne.
So if newspapers, web sites, and social media are all heavily policed in Malaysia, where are the country’s critical voices going to go? For a while, WhatsApp seemed like a safe haven. The messaging app promised its users end-to-end encryption and it’s already a popular source of conversation and news throughout Southeast Asia.
But it’s also a source of fake news and hoaxes as images, warnings, and copy-pasted articles spread through group chats with surprising speed.
Now, the government’s plans to police WhatsApp groups as well has left some admins to wonder whether its these private messaging groups are as safe as they once thought.
“I don’t know who might report me.” Saleha, an admin, told The Star Online. “There might be snitches in my groups.”
The deputy president of the Malaysian Consumers Association, a man named Mohd Yusof Abdul Rahman, urged the government to start policing WhatsApp groups immediately. But the penalties, he said, shouldn’t be stronger than a warning for the first offense.
“In India, the government is introducing a new law which administrators of WhatsApp could be jailed if members of the group are spreading false news,” he said, according to reports in local media.
India announced a similar law earlier this month, saying the law, which would penalize WhatsApp admins who fail to moderate their groups and prevent the spread of fake news, was needed to stop people from forwarding unverified information.
The police in India told admins to only add people they knew to group chats and report users sending fake news reports to the nearest police station. If they fail to report the offending story, they could face jail time, the police concluded.
“In the event of inaction from the group admin, he or she will be considered guilty and action will be taken against the group admin,” the order readaccording to excerpts published by local media.