Malaysian rights groups voice concern over shutting down of parody site

The spoof Twitter account with the handle @Bermanadotcon has been suspended.
The spoof Twitter account with the handle @Bermanadotcon has been suspended.PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM TWITTER

The shutting down of parody Twitter account BermanaTV has raised concerns among human rights groups in Malaysia, which claim that the suspension of parodical and satirical sites fits the alarming pattern of increased censorship and restrictions on freedom of expression imposed by the Malaysian government.

Rights activists said the move encroaches on freedom of speech, and that the authorities and social media giants like Twitter should recognise these sites as satire.

Amnesty International Malaysia's executive director Katrina Jorene Maliamauv said freedom of expression is guaranteed under the Federal Constitution and is a fundamental human right.

"Humour is a form of expression, parody and satire are often tools for social commentary - that people in power may not enjoy it is no reason to crush our right to expression," she told The Straits Times.

"It is shameful and shocking that MCMC is using its power to shut down satirical sites," she said, referring to the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC).

"We urge them instead to focus on addressing actual threats of harassment and intimidation, trolling and hate speech faced by members of the public on social media."

BermanaTV, which pokes fun at Malaysia's national news agency Bernama, was suspended by Twitter last week after a complaint was filed by the Internet regulator.

The account, which used the handle @Bermanadotcon, was suspended by the microblogging site for violating its community standards.

Observers said this signals a possible crackdown on other spoof accounts by the commission, which said these sites deliver false news that mock or insult, and could confuse the public.

The human rights groups are urging the public to sign a petition calling for the government to repeal Section 233 of the Multimedia and Communications Act, and three other laws often used to restrict freedom of expression in Malaysia.

Sharing of offensive and menacing content is an offence under Section 233, which carries a maximum fine of RM50,000 (S$16,440) or a jail term not exceeding one year, or both.

The recent People Power Under Attack 2020 annual report by Civicus Monitor found that civic space remains "obstructed" in Malaysia, as the majority of countries in Asia repress civic freedoms.

It noted that "following the change of government in early March 2020, activists including students have faced judicial harassment from the police for their activism", and journalists in Malaysia have been harassed by the authorities.

In a statement on Sunday, the MCMC alleged that "fake accounts are purposely created to protect the true identity (of the account owner), to lie, create confusion or divide the community".

While it appreciates the action taken by Twitter following its complaint, the agency said the suspension or shutting down of BermanaTV is a reactive and temporary measure.

"MCMC will continue to remind the public to be cautious with the existence of fake accounts in social media that have bad intentions," it said.

The commission as well as Communications and Multimedia Minister Saifuddin Abdullah have not responded to The Straits Times' requests for comment.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 10, 2020, with the headline 'Malaysian rights groups voice concern over shutting down of parody site'. Subscribe