Malaysia

Malaysia

Partly Free
57
100
A Obstacles to Access 17 25
B Limits on Content 21 35
C Violations of User Rights 19 40
Last Year's Score & Status
55 100 Partly Free

Overview

Internet freedom improved in Malaysia, due to the unblocking of local and international websites that were critical of the previous government, and decreased disinformation and the influence of paid commentators known as “cybertroopers.” However, increased online harassment, notably against LGBT+ users and an independent news website, threatened these gains. Criminal prosecutions for social media posts and other online expression, including a 10-year prison sentence imposed on a Facebook user for comments that were deemed insulting to Islam and the prophet Muhammad, posed further threats to internet freedom.

The same political coalition ruled Malaysia from independence in 1957 until 2018, maintaining power by manipulating electoral districts, appealing to ethnic nationalism, and suppressing criticism through restrictive speech laws and politicized prosecutions of opposition leaders. The coalition lost to an opposition alliance in the May 2018 general elections, and the new government began to deliver on its promises of reform, though the momentum for legislative changes appeared to ebb.

Key Developments

June 1, 2018 – May 31, 2019

  • The cost of internet access decreased significantly, with broadband prices dropping by between 30 and 65 percent (see A2).

  • Critical websites blocked under the previous government were unblocked, yet some LGBT+ related sites remained unavailable (see B1).

  • The use of paid commentators known as “cybertroopers” had less of an impact on the online environment during the coverage period, although content manipulation remained an issue (see B5).

  • The new government failed to abolish the Fake News Act of 2018 as promised; Parliament’s lower house voted to repeal the law in August 2018, but the upper house, still controlled by the former ruling party, Barisan Nasional (BN), rejected the legislation. A second effort to repeal the law began after the coverage period (see C1).

  • A number of prosecutions for online activity concerned activists during the coverage period, including a Facebook user who was sentenced to 10 years in prison after being found guilty of insulting Islam and the prophet Muhammad in March 2019 (see C3).

  • Online harassment increased, including a rise in anti-LGBT+ content. In March 2019, supporters and leaders of the United Malays National Organization (UNMO) were accused of verbally and physically harassing two interns from the Malaysiakini news site (see C7).

  • Unlike in previous years, there were no documented politically motivated cyberattacks during the coverage period (see C8).

A Obstacles to Access

Internet access continued to increase during the reporting period. The new government enforced the Mandatory Standard on Access Pricing (MSAP) for broadband prices, significantly decreasing the cost of access for users. A relatively open market allows for competition among providers, resulting in affordable prices, although the quality of service is not always high.

A1 0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 56

Internet penetration rates and average connection speeds continued to grow during the coverage period. Almost 90 percent of Malaysians now have access to internet. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Inclusive Internet Index 2019 report ranked Malaysia 45 out of 100 countries in terms of availability, determined by quality and breadth of available infrastructure.1

By January 2019, government statistics showed that 87.4 percent of Malaysia’s population used the internet, compared to 76.9 percent in 2016.2 The proportion of households with access to computers and mobile phones rose to 74.1 percent and 98.1 percent, respectively, compared to 67.6 percent and 97.9 percent in 2015.3

The increase in internet penetration rates was largely driven by developments in mobile broadband infrastructure, including better access to and improved quality of 3G and 4G LTE networks, as well as new mobile and data subscriptions offered by providers.4

Malaysia’s fixed broadband speed dramatically increased from 23 Mbps in January 2018 to 62 Mbps in October.5 These speeds are now above the global average of 50.9 Mbps.6

A2 0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 33

The cost of internet access decreased significantly during the coverage period, which lessened the socioeconomic digital divide. The new government elected in May 2018 contributed to more affordable internet access by enforcing the MSAP, which caps the wholesale prices service providers can charge.1 Legislation instituting the MSAP was initially passed in December 2017 and went into effect in January 2018 under the previous government, but it was not enforced until the new government took power.2

The government reported in early 2019 that broadband prices had decreased by 25 percent in 2018. Major telecommunications providers Celcom Axiata Bhd, Maxis Bhd, and TIME dotCom Bhd reduced their broadband prices by between 30 and 65 percent.3 In July 2019, Telekom Malaysia lowered the cost of an entry-level broadband package with speeds of up to 8 Mbps to 89 ringgits a month, and 69 ringgits a month for existing users.4

Internet use is centered around cities. The latest government survey showed that in 2018, 70 percent of internet users were in urban areas, with 30 percent from rural areas, reflecting the ongoing urbanization of Malaysia.5 Slight age and gender disparities have also persisted. In 2018, 59 percent of internet users were men and just 41 percent were women. The average age of an internet user was 36.2, up from 33 in 2016. According to statistics, 30 percent of internet users in 2018 were between 20 and 29 years old, while 25.9 percent were between 30 and 39.6

A3 0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 46

There were no reported cases of government-imposed restrictions on internet access during this coverage period. The last major reported incident of authorities restricting access occurred in 20121 However, a partly state-owned company continues to dominate the network infrastructure.

Telekom Malaysia, the largest telecommunications company, retains a monopoly over the fixed-line network and owns the country’s last-mile connections (see A4).2 The government retains a 29 percent stake in Telekom Malaysia, which was formerly state owned.3 The fact that one partly state-owned company controls so much of the internet infrastructure provides a path for authorities to restrict connectivity in the future.

The nonprofit Malaysia Internet Exchange allows service providers to exchange local traffic more efficiently.4 Malaysia has several connections to the international internet, making the network more resilient.5

A4 0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 46
conomic obstacles and political barriers posed by patronage networks restrict the diversity of service providers.

Despite these challenges, the government issued 187 network service provider licenses in 2017, up from 170 in 2016.1 However, the Telekom Malaysia subsidiary TMNet enjoys a virtual monopoly over the broadband market.2

According to the most recent data available, the government issued 218 licenses to network facilities providers that own or operate the internet infrastructure in 2017, up from 181 in 2016.3 Telekom Malaysia controls the fixed-line network.4 For other prospective service providers, they must lease infrastructure from Telekom Malaysia on its own terms, resulting in higher prices and potentially contributing to a less diverse market.5

The largest mobile service provider, Maxis Communications, was founded by Ananda Krishnan, who also owns Malaysia’s largest satellite broadcaster and enjoys close ties to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who assumed office after the May 2018 elections.6 Newer mobile service providers like YTL Communications and U Mobile are ostensibly unaffiliated with the government, but observers believe they benefit from political connections.

Fiber-optic home broadband service is provided by Astro IPTV. Other providers of broadband and mobile internet service include Celcom, Digi, TIME Internet, Tune Talk, and Yes, a wireless 4G provider.7

A5 0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 14

The regulatory body that oversees service providers, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), has frequently failed to operate in a fair manner, despite its multistakeholder advisory board.

The Ministry of Communications and Multimedia oversees the MCMC. The 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) gives the ministry a range of powers, including the authority to license the ownership and operation of network facilities.

The CMA directs the ministry to appoint the MCMC chairperson and three government commissioners, plus additional commissioners representing nongovernmental entities.1 There are six commissioners from the private sector. The process for appointing members of the MCMC advisory board is more transparent and participatory, involving consultations with diverse stakeholders, and civil society members are included on the board. Nevertheless, the MCMC has taken steps to curtail online speech and has not always addressed internet-related issues in a fair manner (see B1).

In May 2018, activists called on the new government to review the ambit of the MCMC’s powers and investigate whether it abused its position under the previous government.2 The government had not yet undertaken such a review by the end of the coverage period.

B Limits on Content

After the new government took power in May 2018, it lifted all blocks imposed on popular news sites and critical blogs during the previous reporting period. However, some blocks remained during the coverage period, including LGBT+ sites that were inaccessible. Disinformation and the impact of paid commentators known as “cybertroopers” began to abate in the postelection environment, although content manipulation remains a serious concern.

B1 0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content? 46

During the coverage period, the new government unblocked websites that were critical of the previous government. However, a few sites that address LGBT+ issues were blocked, and the government continued to block websites for pornography, piracy, and scams.

In May 2018, the newly elected government unblocked three international websites: the UK-based investigate site Sarawak Report, the blogging platform Medium, and the Hong Kong-based commentary site Asia Sentinel. The sites had been blocked due to their reporting on corruption and criticism of then prime minister Najib. In 2015, the MCMC ordered service providers to block access to the Sarawak Report after it published articles on the misallocation of resources from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state investment fund.1 Medium was blocked in 2016, after it refused to take down Sarawak Report articles.2 Asia Sentinel was also blocked in 2016 for “violating national laws” after it published an article that was critical of Najib.3

Blocks on a number of local websites, which had also been targeted for criticism of the previous government, were also lifted.4 Access was restored to the news sites Malaysia Chronicle and the Malaysian Insider (now known as Malaysian Insight),5 which were blocked in 2015 and 2016, respectively, after publishing articles about the 1MDB scandal that criticized the government.6 The new government also unblocked a handful of prominent blogs that were critical of the previous government, such as Din Turtle and Outsyed The Box, a blog that had reposted content from the Sarawak Report.7

Previously, the government said it blocked 10,962 websites found to be involved in online fraud between 2008 and 2017.8 In the government’s campaign against “false news” (see B5), the MCMC said that 1,375 websites had been blocked in 2016 and 2017 for “false content.”9

Some websites hosting LGBT+ content were unavailable during the coverage period.10 In August 2018, the gay dating site Planet Romeo, the LGBT+ news site Gay Star News, and the travel guide Utopia were all reportedly unavailable in the country. They remained inaccessible at the end of the coverage period.

The MCMC reported blocking 2,684 sites for pornography and 1,347 for scams between January and October 2018.11 In February 2019, the government also reported blocking 246 websites for piracy.12

Blocking and filtering of online content sometimes increases around elections. On the day of the May 2018 general elections, the Malaysiakini news site briefly became inaccessible, but access was restored after several hours.13

B2 0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content? 24

The MCMC periodically instructs websites and social media platforms to remove content.1 Blog owners and Facebook users have been told to remove content that touches on sensitive issues involving race, religion, and the monarchy.

Authorities have requested that technology companies remove content. The MCMC and private users requested that Facebook remove content during the coverage period. Between July and December 2018, Facebook restricted 26 items: 16 for hate speech and 4 for harassment.2 Five items were restricted based on private claims of defamation. During the same period, Twitter received eight removal requests, but complied with none. 3 Similarly, Google received seven removal requests relating to impersonation, fraud, hate speech, obscenity, and privacy and security.4 Additionally, in March 2019, the MCMC requested that social media platforms remove videos of the mosque attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the platforms reportedly complied.56

Intermediaries risk liability for some content posted by users, though it is not clear whether this leads them to remove more content than necessary. In 2012, Parliament passed an amendment to the 1950 Evidence Act that holds intermediaries liable for seditious content posted anonymously on their networks or websites.7 This includes hosts of online forums, news outlets, and blogging services, as well as businesses providing Wi-Fi services.8 The amendment holds individuals liable if they “facilitate” the publication of the offending content, and holds the owner of the computer the content was published from liable, whether or not they are the author.9

B3 0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 24

Blocking and removal requests are generally nontransparent and lack judicial oversight or effective avenues for appeal. A provision of the CMA states that none of its wording “shall be construed as permitting the censorship of the internet,” although this is often not the case in practice. The Multimedia Super Corridor, a government information technology (IT) development project, includes a 10-point Bill of Guarantees to member businesses that promises freedom from censorship.1

Blocks are implemented on the authority of the MCMC, which reports to the government (see A5). No list of affected sites is available. Site owners can appeal a block directly to the MCMC, though there is no guarantee that they will receive a reply.

B4 0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 24

Self-censorship is common among online journalists and ordinary users, particularly in regard to sensitive issues such as Islam’s official status, race, the monarchy, and the preferential treatment enjoyed by the bumiputera—the term for ethnic Malays and other indigenous people—over the Chinese and Indian minorities. Discussing these topics can lead to prosecution, which contributes to self-censorship online.1 Journalists sometimes intentionally leave sensitive material out of their articles.2

  • 1. ‘Three men charged with insulting Islam, Prophet Muhammad’, Malay Mail Online, March 8, 2019 https://bit.ly/2OSZ5Ax
  • 2. Based on author's interviews with editors and journalists

B5 0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 24

Under the new government, the manipulation and control of online sources of information decreased. However, some content manipulation persisted following the elections and over the coverage period.

Both government and opposition figures have been known to pay online commentators, known as “cybertroopers,” to generate favorable content and denigrate their opponents.1 Such partisan manipulation increased on social media in the run-up to the May 2018 general elections.2 Cybertroopers continued to post content during the coverage period, but at a much slower pace.

A report from the Oxford Internet Institute released in September 2019 found that teams of cybertroopers with full-time staff members are employed to manipulate the information landscape.3 According to the report, there is evidence that such teams received formal training. They work to disseminate the preferred messaging of their clients, attack the opposition, and suppress critical content. There is also evidence that automated accounts on Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, and YouTube are utilized.

The former BN government took steps to combat what it characterized as “false news” in 2017. SEBENARNYA, a fact-checking portal launched by the Communications and Multimedia Ministry, encouraged social media users to verify the content of all news reports shared on popular platforms with the slogan, “not sure, don’t share.”4 Officials said the portal was nonpartisan,5 and the new government has retained it.

Some online journalists have been subject to informal, inconsistent bans from select government press conferences, reflecting the government’s efforts to control coverage.6

B6 0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 13

Many online platforms struggle to stay economically viable, and government restrictions contribute to difficult market conditions. In the past, a number of news sites have faced significant financial penalties due to defamation charges from political leaders (see C3). In 2016, the Malaysian Insider ceased operations shortly after it was blocked by authorities, though it cited financial reasons for its closure.1 The outlet reopened under the name Malaysian Insight in 2017.

News sites have withstood regulatory attempts to restrict them in the past, although some efforts have centered around outlets’ offline presence. In 2013, a judge ordered the Home Ministry to grant Malaysiakini the right to reapply for a print license.2 The ministry had repeatedly refused to grant the license and challenged a 2012 appeals court ruling that characterized Malaysiakini’s right to publish a newspaper as fundamental.3 Despite the 2013 court ruling, the ministry again denied Malaysiakini a license in 2014 because it “often causes controversy,” and the publication has therefore never produced a print newspaper.4

B7 0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity? 34

Digital media is more diverse than traditional media in Malaysia.1 More established sites such as Malaysiakini and the Malay Mail Online have been joined by smaller platforms that contribute to the diversity of information.2 Several digital news platforms are among the country’s most popular websites.3 However, online self-censorship around controversial issues such as Islam’s official status, race, and the monarchy limit the diversity of viewpoints available about those topics (see B4).

Expanded internet access has led to the emergence of a vibrant blogosphere. English and Malay are the dominant languages, and many civil society groups, including those representing ethnic minorities, have a dynamic online presence. Websites in Chinese and Tamil are also increasing in number and influence.

Social media continues to be an important avenue for accessing a wide array of information. In 2018, an estimated 24.6 million people used social media platforms in Malaysia, and 97.3 percent of those users were on Facebook. Also in 2018, 27.8 million people used communication platforms like WeChat, Telegram, Skype, and Facebook Messenger. Nearly 27.2 million people used WhatsApp, making it the most popular communication app.4

Government leaders and agencies continue to use social media and communication platforms to provide updates and occasionally respond to accusations of abuse from members of the public. Prime Minister Mohamad, though a new social media user, has millions of followers.5 Many leaders of the new governing coalition, including ministers, are more tech savvy than their predecessors from the BN, though former prime minister Najib also had his own blog and several million followers on Facebook and Twitter.6

B8 0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 56

Digital tools remain available for users and have helped expose and undercut the government’s control over traditional media. Social media has been a particularly effective tool for mobilization. However, restrictive laws around free expression and the threat of criminal prosecution could limit some online mobilization.

In the run-up to the polls in May 2018, citizens took to social media to offer financial aid as well as transportation assistance for voters who needed to return to their home villages to cast ballots.1 Hashtags such as #CarPoolGE14 and #ReturnHomeToVote trended in the weeks before the elections.2 Following the elections, social media remained a popular tool for digital activism.3

  • 1. Ling Kwan, ‘Jom Balik Undi’ FB Group is Offering M’sians Free Rides Home to Vote for GE14, WorldofBuzz, April 11, 2018, https://bit.ly/2JmxEip
  • 2. New Jo-Lyn, ‘No transport to go back for GE14? Here’s where you can carpool with other Malaysians’, April 11, 2018, CiliSos.my, https://bit.ly/2LMwhHN
  • 3. Social media trends in Malaysia, accessed on July 29, 2019, http://bit.ly/2Zj4xRE

C Violations of User Rights

Following the change of government in May 2018, criminal charges against civil society activists and politicians for their online remarks decreased, although social media users who post on controversial issues related to race, religion, and the monarchy continue to risk prosecution and imprisonment. The new government also pledged to revoke a restrictive “fake news” law passed by the outgoing government just before the elections, but has yet to do so.

C1 0-6 pts
Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence? 26

Malaysia’s constitution provides citizens with “the right to freedom of speech and expression” but allows for limitations on those rights. A number of laws also undermine freedom of expression. While some progovernment court decisions have disappointed rights advocates,1 other rulings suggest more judicial independence.

The new government has pledged to abolish the Fake News Act of 2018,2 which the previous government passed in May 2018, ostensibly to curb the spread of fake news, especially through social media.3 In pushing for the law, authorities argued that Malaysians most frequently get fake or unverified news via WhatsApp, followed by Facebook, blogs, and other sources.4 The sweeping law could seriously restrict free expression online and imposes prison sentenced of up to six years for those found to report fake news (see C2).5 Activists argued that the law was meant to silence criticism of the government and is vulnerable to abuse.6

Parliament’s lower house repealed the law in August 2018, but the upper house, still controlled by the BN, rejected the repeal in September, calling for the law to be revised rather than repealed outright.7 In March 2019, the government reiterated its intentions to repeal that law and said that it would not charge anyone under the legislation in the meantime.8 After the coverage period, in October 2019, the lower house again voted to repeal the law.9

C2 0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities? 14

A number of laws impose criminal and civil penalties for online activities. The government exercises tight control over online, as well as print and broadcast media, through laws like the Official Secrets Act and the Sedition Act, which dates to 1948. Violations can be punished with fines and several years in prison.

Amendments passed in 2015 widened the scope of the Sedition Act, allowing the government to block electronic content that is considered seditious.1 The maximum penalty in general sedition cases is now seven years in prison, up from three years before the amendments. A provision also imposes up to 20 years in prison for seditious activities that result in physical harm or destruction of property.2 In 2015, the Malaysian Federal Court rejected a constitutional challenge to the Sedition Act.3

The Fake News Act of 2018, which was debated and passed within a week, covers news, information, data, reports, images, or recordings in any form that are wholly or partly false. It is apparently an offense to possess, produce, offer, or share fake news content.4 The law is applicable to non-Malaysians and to Malaysians residing outside the country, and offenders can be fined up to 500,000 ringgits ($125,000), imprisoned for up to six years, or both. Those financially supporting the offenders could also be liable. Any failure to eradicate the production of fake news could lead to fines of up to 100,000 ringgits ($25,000). The courts can order the destruction of publications containing fake news. This law was still in place as of the end of the coverage period, although the current government has pledged not to enforce its criminal provisions (see C1).

Defamation is a criminal offense under Sections 499 to 520 of the Penal Code. Media outlets benefit from stronger protections under the Defamation Act of 1957 if they can prove that the content is accurate and was published without malice;5 bloggers, who lack this protection, are at greater risk for defamation charges.

The government has also pursued prosecutions for online content under the 1998 CMA. The act’s broadly worded Section 211 bans content deemed “indecent, obscene, false, threatening, or offensive.” Spreading such content on the internet constitutes “improper use of network facilities or network service” under Section 233. Amendments to the CMA and the related Communications and Multimedia Commission Act (CMCA) of 1998 were expected to be presented in late 2016,6 including measures to curb the use of social media to inflame “religious and racial sensitivities” or support the “recruitment of terrorists.”7 Critics said these amendments were intended to restrict criticism of the government.8 In September 2018, the government asserted that it would amend the CMA to alter some of the more draconian provisions that are most vulnerable to abuse. The changes had not yet been proposed at the end of the coverage period.9

C3 0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities? 26

During the coverage period, a number internet users were arrested and prosecuted for online speech. Most arrests were for content that insulted Islam or the monarchy, or touched on sensitive racial issues. Fewer individuals faced prosecutions for criticism of the government than during previous coverage periods.

The government continued to investigate internet users under the Penal Code and the CMA, based on online speech targeting Islam and the prophet Muhammad. In March 2019, a Facebook user was sentenced to 10 years in prison for insulting Islam and the prophet Muhammad.1 Three other social media users were also charged in March for similar offenses, and their cases were pending as of July 2019.2 Also in March, another Facebook user was charged for Facebook comments that allegedly insulted Hinduism.3 The case was pending as of July 2019.

Some individuals were arrested after posting political content, although such cases were less frequent than under the previous government. In January 2019, at least three people were arrested for insulting the former king on social media under the Sedition Act.4 In April 2018, independent preacher Wan Ji Wan Hussin was sentenced to nine months in jail for posting seditious statements on Facebook against one of the nine state-level constitutional monarchs, the sultan of Selangor, in 2012. In July 2019, the sentence was extended to one year by a court that denied his first appeal. Wan Ji had not yet served any jail time at the end of the coverage period, and will remain free pending his second appeal.5

During the last coverage period, the Fake News Act was applied for the first time in April 2018, when Danish national Salah Salem Saleh Sulaiman was fined 10,000 ringgits ($2,500) after posting a video on YouTube that accused police of taking 50 minutes to respond to the shooting of a Palestinian lecturer in Kuala Lumpur. Police said they took eight minutes to respond to the incident. The charge against Sulaiman stated that he had “with ill intent, published fake news through a video on YouTube.” Sulaiman refused to pay the fine and opted to serve one month in jail.6

No other cases of news sites being subjected to defamation charges were reported. Former prime minister Najib and his party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) sued Malaysiakini for defamation in 2014, as well as three additional news sites in 2015.7 Following his coalition’s defeat in the May 2018 elections, Najib withdrew several defamation suits he had filed against his critics.8

C4 0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 34

Anonymous communication online and encryption are largely not restricted in Malaysia, although there are some registration requirements for mobile phone users. Since 2007, mobile phone owners, including customers using prepaid services, have been required to register as part of an effort to reduce the spread of rumors.1 However, the rule has reportedly been weakly enforced. Real-name registration is not required for bloggers or customers at cybercafés.

Users can largely use encryption tools as they please, although a number of laws allow police to access encryption and decryption codes when conducting searches.2

C5 0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 26

Privacy protections in Malaysia are poor, and it is difficult to ascertain the extent of government surveillance of users’ internet activities.1

There are legal provisions allowing for the police, prosecutors, and even the communications and multimedia minister to intercept online and mobile communications. While judicial oversight is sometimes required, in practice the courts usually grant requests for interception warrants. The laws are generally interpreted to require network operators and service providers to assist law enforcement and intelligence agencies in surveillance efforts, even where clear procedures are lacking. A court order is not required for emergency interception, which applies to cases with national security implications. Under the Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act of 2012, a police officer at the rank of superintendent of police or above may intercept communications without the authorization of the public prosecutor in urgent cases.2

Some government agencies may have obtained equipment enabling them to monitor digital activity without oversight. In 2013, the University of Toronto–based research group Citizen Lab reported detecting software known as FinFisher—described by its distributor Gamma International as “governmental IT intrusion and remote monitoring solutions”—on 36 servers worldwide, including in Malaysia.3 The software potentially allows the server to steal passwords, tap Skype calls, or record audio and video without permission from other computers.4 Citizen Lab also identified “a Malaysian election-related document” that it characterized as a “booby-trapped candidate list” containing surveillance software.5 Because the spyware is only marketed to governments, “it is reasonable to assume that some government actor is responsible,” the group concluded. A separate Citizen Lab report published in 2014 asserted that a Malaysian government agency was a “current or former user” of the Remote Control System spyware marketed by the Milan-based company Hacking Team.6 In 2016, the Prime Minister's Office denied having purchased this spyware but could not confirm whether other government agencies had done so.7

Social media monitoring was a concern during the coverage period. In March 2019, Minister of Religious Affairs Mujahid Yusof Rawa announced that a special unit had been formed to monitor platforms to find content that insults Islam.8 Similarly, in October 2018, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Malaysia had previously purchased sophisticated surveillance technology from Israeli firms, which can monitor and analyze social media and other open-source information.9 Previously, the US-based company Snaptrends also reportedly discussed its social media monitoring technology with Malaysian authorities.10

C6 0-6 pts
Are service providers and other technology companies required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users? 46

The law protects against using individual data for commercial purposes, but there are no provisions specifically addressing online privacy.1 In some cases, service providers are required to aid the government in monitoring user communications.2 For example, the Computer Crimes Act of 1997 mandates that providers give police access to user information once a warrant is obtained. Providers that fail to comply can face up to three years in prison and fines of up to 25,000 ringgits ($6,000).3 Section 116 of the Criminal Procedure Code obligates service providers to turn over user information, which is defined as “the necessary password, encryption code, decryption code, software or hardware, and any other means.”4 Depending on the offense being investigated, the Criminal Procedure Code does not always require police to obtain a warrant. Section 116c of the code allows the public prosecutor to force service providers to collect and retain specific user communications or data. The prosecutor can also authorize a police officer to install devices to collect such information.

The Malaysian Personal Data Protection Act of 2010, which regulates the processing of personal data in commercial transactions, came into effect in 2013. The law makes it illegal for commercial organizations to sell personal information or allow third parties to use it. Those convicted of violating the law can be fined up to 100,000 ringgits ($25,000) or sentenced to one year in prison. The federal and state governments are exempted from the law, as are entities that process data outside Malaysia.5 The act requires that information about Malaysians be stored locally and limits conditions under which it can be transferred abroad, though the extent to which those rules are enforced is unclear.6

C7 0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in retribution for their online activities? 35

Intimidation and physical violence against individuals in retaliation for their online activities is not a major problem. However, there has been a worrying rise of online harassment against LGBT+ activists and ordinary users alike.1

In March 2019, UMNO supporters and leaders reportedly harassed and assaulted two interns from Malaysiakini who were reporting on an event featuring former prime minister Najib in Kuala Lumpur.2 A UMNO member was charged with using criminal force during the incident. The suspect’s trial was ongoing at the end of the reporting period, and he faces up to three months in jail and/or a fine of up to 1,000 ringgits ($2,500) if convicted.3

Users have also been targeted on social media. LGBT+ users, for example, have been subjected to increased harassment and hateful content online since the May 2018 elections, according to local activists.4 For example, activist Numan Afifi experienced significant online harassment after speaking at the UN Human Rights Council about LGBT+ rights in Malaysia in April 2019.5

Users sometimes face offline retaliation for their online activities. One user was suspended from their job after their social media posts, which allegedly insulted the king, were reported to the police.6

C8 0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 23

Technical attacks aimed at suppressing political information online were not reported during the coverage period. However, cyberattacks, including the use of ransomware, which targeted private actors, continued.1 For example, in November 2018, the digital media company Media Prima Berhad was reportedly targeted by a ransomware attack, in which the attackers demanded 1,000 bitcoins ($8.3 million) to release access to the computer systems.2

In the previous coverage period, several technical attacks targeted politicians and political websites on election day in May 2018. Politicians from both the incumbent BN coalition and the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition claimed that their phones were hacked, causing them to receive a wave of unsolicited calls from overseas.3 Political parties also claimed that their websites were attacked and became inaccessible.

In previous years, independent online news outlets and opposition-affiliated websites have faced distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. DDoS attacks force sites to crash by overloading the host server with requests for content. Some observers believe such attacks were either sponsored or condoned by Malaysian security agencies.

  • 1. “CIMB denies its online banking system was hacked, assures all is secure:, The Star Online, Dec 17, 2018, http://bit.ly/2JYfMcV
  • 2. “Media Prima hit by ransomware attack — sources”, The Edge Financial Daily, November 13, 2018, http://bit.ly/2GzQa45
  • 3. ‘MCMC says spam calls came from unknown bot attacks’, The Star Online, May 9, 2018, https://bit.ly/2J3DbXF

Country Facts

  • Freedom in the World Status

    Partly Free
  • Networks Restricted

    No
  • Websites Blocked

    Yes
  • Pro-government Commentators

    Yes
  • Users Arrested

    Yes

Previous Reports