Freedom of assembly and association online in Malaysia

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Executive summary of the paper permalink

Freedom of assembly and association (FoAA) is a fundamental right recognized in Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). FoAA online refers to the exercise of civil rights in peaceful assembly and association enhanced by the use of ICT (Venkiteswaran, 2016).

There are three objectives of this report: First, it seeks to deepen understanding about the context in which FoAA online in Malaysia exists. For this, some background is provided on the historical context of FoAA in Malaysia and its transition towards the digital realm, as well as the legal restrictions on FoAA online. Secondly, it aims to capture the creativity and richness of campaign strategies enhanced by the use of ICT in civil society movements in Malaysia. Lastly, it relates the exercise of FoAA online to the broader struggles of human rights in the country, through deriving observations from the campaign case studies as well as challenges and threats faced by the cyber activists in Malaysia.

The research framework is structured into two main sections:

An overarching view looking at the policy context and practice of FoAA online in Malaysia, and five case studies which delve into a diverse set of Malaysian campaigns that have used online media extensively as part of their campaign strategy. Case studies chosen include:

  1. The Bersih 4 rally demanding for the stepping down of Prime Minister Najib Razak,
  2. student activism in defense of academic freedom in #Solidarity4AzmiSharom,
  3. the transgender community’s online campaign to expand discussions of gender identity,
  4. the indigenous people’s fight to protest against Baram Dam,
  5. and #KitaSemuaPenghasut, an unintended viral campaign which used a clown caricature to criticise the clampdown on civil society due to reports of high level corruption.

Research methods used include desk research and expert interviews.

Malaysia government has long limited the civil freedoms of its citizen by demarcating issues related race, religion, and royalty as “sensitive” and out of bounds. This was achieved by enacting draconian laws restricting freedom of expression, association and assembly; and by exercising strong control over media freedoms through state ownership of news organisations. The availability of the internet from 1990s onwards triggered an erosion of the government’s monopoly on media and information, the significant decline in votes for the ruling political party in the 12 th and 13 th General Elections in 2008 and 2013 was attributed to online media and blogging platforms. However, this study finds that the internet’s power as a democratic space is gradually shrinking due to the government’s co-option of the vibrant socio-political blogosphere, the employment or deployment of cybertroopers, and recent clampdowns on online spaces through state intimidation, as well as a wide range of legal instruments.

Observations on the case studies conducted for this research highlight four main ways in which civil society in Malaysia uses the internet:

  1. for organisational and logistical purposes,
  2. direct expression of dissent and protest,
  3. identity formation and reinforcement,
  4. information dissemination.

Threats and challenges faced while doing online activism and exercising the right to FoAA online include:

  1. The inherent weaknesses of the internet as a space for interaction such as clicktivism, and increased polarisation of opinions;
  2. state harassment and social media policing, enabled by laws and active monitoring of social media by the police;
  3. increased censorship and legal instruments leading to self-censorship, contrary to the Malaysian government’s initial commitment to not censor the internet;
  4. overt and covert surveillance and privacy violations by the state;
  5. hacking and other cyber attacks in which perpetrators are not easily traceable;
  6. online violence and hate speech; and
  7. misinformation and the spread of propaganda through cybertroopers.

In conclusion, while civil society enjoyed relative freedom in the early years of the internet in Malaysia, the government’s increasingly authoritarian approach has in recent years also been extended to online spaces.