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Malaysia tops TikTok content removal requests

KUALA LUMPUR (ANN/THE STRAITS TIMES) – In the latter half of 2023, the Malaysian government led the world in content removal requests to TikTok, reflecting a significant rise in social media censorship allegedly intended to suppress political opposition, according to critics. 

TikTok’s biannual transparency report reveals that Kuala Lumpur submitted 1,862 such requests during this period, averaging about 10 daily. This represents a 5.5-fold increase from the previous six months. 

Throughout the entire year, Malaysia issued 2,202 removal requests, a dramatic surge compared to the 70 requests made in 2022.

After the November 2022 general election, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and his Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition assumed power. In stark contrast, Australia recorded the second highest number of TikTok content removal requests in the latter half of 2023, with 651 submissions. 

Within Southeast Asia, Indonesia was next with 351 requests, followed by Singapore with 47. Malaysia was responsible for over a quarter of the global removal requests during this timeframe.

TikTok did not specify the nature of the restricted content in Malaysia, only noting that it acts on content violating community guidelines or local laws. The platform’s political content is heavily dominated by the opposition alliance Perikatan Nasional (PN), leading critics to argue that the government is suppressing dissenting voices. 

PN’s effectiveness on TikTok was credited with contributing to its unexpected successes in the 2022 general election.

The surging number of takedown demands comes amid deepening criticism that the multi-coalition “unity government” led by Malaysian PM Anwar Ibrahim’s PH alliance, is clamping down on free speech. PHOTO: ANN/THE STRAITS TIMES SOURCE

Shadow minister for communications Wan Saiful Wan Jan likened the clampdown to the 1987 Operation Lalang, which saw over 100 politicians and activists arrested and media licences revoked. “It’s a new Ops Lalang. Anwar criticises what (then PM) Mahathir Mohamad did but now he is doing worse,” he told the source.

This trend is also evident on platforms managed by Facebook owner Meta, including Instagram. Meta reported nearly 8,600 content restrictions in Malaysia in 2023, a 15-fold increase from 2022.

The rising number of takedown demands has sparked criticism that the “unity government” led by Anwar’s PH alliance, which campaigned on broadening civil liberties, is clamping down on free speech.

In May, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released its 2024 World Press Freedom Index, which saw Malaysia drop to 107th place from 73rd the previous year.

“I don’t mind. It does not matter if we are downgraded because we are tough against the racists and the religious bigots,” said Mr Anwar on May 27. His response drew criticism from civil society organisations, who said it misrepresented the reasons for the drop.

RSF noted that “news sites critical of the government are often blocked in Malaysia”. Several incidents of site suspensions were reported during crucial political periods, such as in the run-up to the August 2023 state elections.

Lawyers For Liberty (LFL) highlighted these restrictions and noted that “TikTok videos of government critics have also been blocked by the MCMC”, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission.

Sources involved in social media report that these demands for restrictions are growing in 2024, with authorities dedicating personnel to monitor platforms for offensive content, most of which are political.

Meta’s transparency report for the second half of 2023 revealed over 4,700 items reported by MCMC were restricted, including hate speech, criticism of the government, and divisive content.

Critics argue that sections 233 and 211 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA), which criminalise “obscene, indecent, false, menacing or offensive” content, are ambiguously worded and open to abuse.

Neither the MCMC nor Communications Minister Fahmi Fadzil responded to queries from the source on the takedown requests or claims of silencing dissent. However, Mr Fahmi has repeatedly denied ordering any website blocks.

In March, Mr Fahmi engaged in a heated debate with Mr Wan Saiful and former education minister Radzi Jidin (PN) in Parliament over allegations that TikTok videos on the shrinking value of the ringgit were “geofenced” to block Malaysians from viewing them.

Mr Fahmi asserted that “honestly, if there was no freedom of speech, your account would not be on this platform any more”.

TikTok, in response to queries, stated that it may restrict content in a country where it is considered illegal, even if it does not violate their Community Guidelines.