Bloggers v. Authoritarians and Censorship

>> Thursday, November 6, 2008

Political bloggers are no strangers to the ways that the internet is able to circumvent traditional controls on media and information. Nothing could epitomize this more than the story of the man in Malaysia who once controlled the system and the media and now fights against it. A former Prime Minister turned blogger Mahathir Mohamad is a case study in the power of the internet in the furtherance of freedom. Where once he was the man directing the censorship of the press he now undermines it.

We on the tubes that deal primarily with American media and American politics dont always have such a firm grasp on the stark difference between the media we have and the media in third world dictatorships. While it is true that the press has been the propaganda arm of our government on the iraq war and other issues we cannot say the entire media is oppressed or corrupt. We still have some honest people who do good reporting both on tv and in newspapers. Most of the drivel that serves as our national discourse can be chalked up to incompetence rather than outright corruption. This is not the case in other parts of the world and Malaysia is one of those places.

Malaysia is a place where government pressure and intimidation has created a press that is worse than ours. Imagine if all we ever had was Fox News. Now imagine that if you called out Fox news you faced things like imprisonment without trial, attacks in the government-friendly press and defamation lawsuits. It is as if Cheney had a license to simply throw any one in Guantanamo when he felt like it. In an environment like this the ability to disseminate the truth to the population is an invaluable tool in fighting for and securing freedom. This is exactly what Mahathir Mohamad discovered.

In a way Mahathir Mohamad becoming a political blogger fighting for freedom of the press would be like Bush suddenly discovering that the police state was a bad idea after being in power for two decades. He helped to set it up and suddenly when he wants something it gets in his way. oops.

But he has become an irritant and a spoiler five years after stepping down, turning against his handpicked successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and falling victim to the press controls he perfected as prime minister.

“Where is the press freedom?” he asked two years ago, apparently surprised at being suddenly ignored. “Broadcast what I have to say! What I say is not even accurately published in the press!”

He is not a particularly sympathetic character. The NYT piece that relates the story of the Malay bloggers would have done better i to focus on Jeff Ooi. Ooi seems to be the Malay Kos because he has moved the Malay Political Blogosphere onto the ground effecting political change.

In March, political experts said, Malaysia’s bloggers helped influence elections, contributing to the biggest upset that the governing party, the United Malays National Organization, had suffered since independence in 1957. For the first time in decades, it held fewer than two-thirds of the seats in Parliament, and it lost control of 5 of the 13 states.

Among the opposition winners in the national and state governments were several bloggers, most prominently Jeff Ooi, who claimed to have prodded Mr. Mahathir into starting his own blog.

“The government doesn’t have a clue how to handle bloggers,” Mr. Ooi said in an interview. “If I were a dictator, I would be despairing. What do you do against this?”

The fight that these Malay bloggers face is harsher than that of getting Barack Obama elected. While we had to overcome the sleaze of John McCain we really never had to fear that the government would come to our houses and toss us into Gitmo. While our constitution has eroded considerably I think this stuff would be hard sell to the public.

Now, a convert to free speech, Mr. Mahathir is using his blog to champion the most recent victim of government censorship, Raja Petra Kamaruddin, the country’s most prominent blogger, who posts on, his Web site. The site has been blocked, but readers are redirected to another Web site, which continues to be updated.

The government has fallen back on the kind of tactics that Mr. Ooi faced. It charged Mr. Petra with sedition and jailed him for two years without trial for comments he had posted.

Mr. Mahathir sounded almost like Che Guevara when he said in his blog that the arrest showed “a degree of oppressive arrogance worthy of a totalitarian state.”

Furthermore, jailing people is futile, he said in an interview in his office. There is no way the government can arrest all the bloggers, even if it wants to.

I dont want to glorify Matathir because he helped to put the system into place. That he is a person now trying to bring down the system of injustice is the simple fulfillment of a duty he has to the people of Malaysia. However, his story and the story of the Malaysian bloggers who have made a real difference in the freedom of the Malaysian people deserves to get some attention. The internet and freedom of speech are a powerful force as these courageous people have shown. They should be an inspiration to oppressed people everywhere and they should strike fear into the hearts of the oppressors because what jeff ooi was right when he pointed out the power of the internet,

“If I were a dictator, I would be despairing. What do you do against this?”


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