Saturday, September 13, 2008

BBC Robin Brant's Piece and Last Interview With RPK

D.O. N.O.T. F.A.L.L. F.O.R. T.H.E. T.R.A.P.

By Robin Brant
BBC News, Kuala Lumpur

Raja Petra Kamarudin, file pic from 2007 (Image: Malaysiakini)
Raja Petra's website was temporarily closed before his arrest

Late on Tuesday night, I spoke to Raja Petra Kamarudin. We were supposed to meet face-to-face earlier in the day, but Malaysia's most vociferous anti-government campaigner could not make it. He was in hiding.

Three days later, he was detained.

The ostensible reason for the blogger's arrest was that he published a blasphemous article about Islam on his website, Malaysia Today. In the predominantly Muslim country, such an offence can carry a jail sentence.

But several weeks ago, the campaigner had also made allegations against one of Malaysia's most powerful men, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Mr Petra suggested the minister may have been involved in the 2007 murder of a Mongolian model. Mr Najib denied any involvement.

Shortly afterwards, the government ordered internet service providers to block access to Malaysia Today. The ban was lifted the day before Mr Petra was arrested.

Internet crackdown?

As Malaysia strives to keep pace with Asia's fastest-growing economies, the internet is flourishing: Kuala Lumpur offers citywide wireless access and high-speed connections are being rolled out across the country.

The influence of online news sites and bloggers - who are often critical of the government - is growing exponentially.

Anwar Ibrahim - the charismatic opposition leader being touted as a future prime minister despite being mired in decade-old sodomy allegations - has detailed every stage of his political rehabilitation on his own website: anwaribrahimblog.com.

Although there is tight regulation of traditional media in Malaysia, with newspapers requiring an annual licence from the government to publish, there have been no such restrictions online. So far.

But Mr Petra's arrest is being seen by some as evidence that the online free-for-all is about to end. Within hours of his detention, an ethnic Chinese journalist was reportedly arrested. A wider crackdown is feared.

Racial harmony

During our interview on Tuesday, Mr Petra told me he wanted "to be available to help in the dissemination of information that is going to be greatly required" for the next 10 days.

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim at a press conference in Permatang Pauh (25/08/2008)
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim updates a regular blog

The period he was referring to is crucial for the government: Malaysia's resurgent opposition has promised to bring down the administration of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi by 16 September - the date of Malaysia's anniversary.

It is an ambitious, and perhaps overly-optimistic, pledge. But the opposition has been gathering momentum since it made historic gains in March's general election.

The government, meanwhile, is embroiled in internal fighting, some of which is due to the growing influence of independent websites like Malaysia Today.

The government remains adamant there is no crackdown. Just days before Mr Petra's arrest, Home Minister Syed Hamid told me the temporary closure of Malaysia Today was merely a "cautious" step.

He emphasised the government had to maintain stability and peace among the Malay, Chinese and Indian communities that make up modern day Malaysia.

But fears are growing among some that there is going to be a repeat of a famous clampdown the government ordered 20 years ago.

Two further arrests have been made overnight. An opposition politician and a journalist who works for a Chinese language newspaper have both been detained under the internal security act.

Backs to the firewall?

Mr Petra has rejected the implication Malaysia Today sowed discord, arguing that the site's main theme was one of racial harmony.

I think the Pandora's box has opened... The government is going back on its word
Raja Petra

"What Syed Hamid is accusing us of, it is them who are doing it, not us," he told me during our interview.

"I think the Pandora's box has opened. The government started off by guaranteeing freedom of the internet - no censorship, no restrictions. Now the government is going back on its word."

Jeff Ooi, a blogger and opposition MP, said the government's temporary closure of Malaysia Today was an infringement of Malaysia's cyber laws, and hinted it could be the start of something more sinister.

"I do not know whether Malaysia is following the footsteps of China," he said, referring to the firewall that blocks access to sites deemed inappropriate by the Communist authorities in Beijing.

"If that is the case, then Malaysia is regressing."

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