Four Charged with Spreading Riot Rumors over Internet

Posted on September 30, 1998 
Filed Under AsiaBizTech, Julian

By Julian Matthews

September 30, 1998 (KUALA LUMPUR) — Four people were charged in a Malaysian court on Sept. 24 with spreading rumors of riots in the capital city over the Internet.

This is the first such case of its kind in Malaysia.

A woman and three men claimed trial to the charges and were released on bail. The timing of the start of trials might be a warning to local Internet users not to use the medium to stir up incidents in the city, already troubled by demonstrations in the last two weeks over the sudden sacking of deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim.

The woman, logistic trainer Tan Lai Yee, and three men, finance manager Wong Yoon Sing, bank officer Au Yong Wai and site supervisor Lee Chun Meng, were charged in separate courts with committing the offense under Section 505 (b) of the Penal Code.

The offense carries a maximum two years’ jail or fine, or both, upon conviction. The four were detained under the Internal Security Act last month after rumors surfaced in early August via e-mail that disgruntled migrant Indonesian workers were amassing machetes and planning to start a riot in the city to protest an Aug. 15 deadline to deport those who had yet to renew work permits.

Hoax messages that Indonesians in two neighborhoods had begun to riot on Aug. 7 caused panic provision buying by local residents and spooked foreign exchange trading. The incident incensed the Malaysian government, which denied the rumors and ordered a crackdown on the so-called “cyber rumor-mongers.” Police tracked down the culprits with the assistance of government-funded Mimos Berhad, one of two Internet service providers in the country.

The local Internet community was stunned that the ISP could so easily trace the alleged originators of the messages and pry into their private e-mail.

They said the arrests and subsequent charges went against the spirit of the Multimedia Super Corridor, Malaysia’s plan to build a high-bandwidth global technology zone south of the city, which guarantees there will be no censorship of the Internet.

A Mimos spokesman responded that it traced users’ accounts only under special circumstances and when law enforcement agencies submitted written requests. Ironically, the bogus riots turned into reality for entirely different reasons, when former deputy premier and finance minister Anwar Ibrahim led an unprecedented 30,000-strong rally through the streets of Kuala Lumpur on Sept. 20. He was protesting his sudden sacking by Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad.

Anwar and several of his supporters were arrested under the Internal Security Act the same day.

Running battles between pro-Anwar supporters and riot police firing tear gas and water cannons have followed, with a number of arrests made over the last week.

Anwar has since been charged in court (Sept. 29) for unnatural sex acts and corruption — allegations which he has repeatedly denied since he was sacked on Sept. 2 and expelled from the dominant political party, Umno, the next day.

Thousands of Malaysians, disappointed by local news coverage of the Mahathir-Anwar furor, have turned to the Internet to source the latest foreign news reports. More than 50 Web sites, including offshore mirror sites, have sprung up mostly sympathetic to Anwar and his nascent reformation movement against corruption, nepotism and cronyism in government.

The Net is also being used to organize protest demonstrations, and messages advertising future gatherings have been posted on Web sites and mailing lists. Users have indicated they fear that police may be monitoring the content of the Web sites and mailing lists.

In another incident, service provider Mimos announced on Sept. 28 that it had tracked down a person for allegedly inciting racial disharmony through the Internet.

Mimos chairman and chief executive officer Dr. Azzman Shariffadeen said the person’s particulars have been handed over to the police upon their request.

“The person pretended to be of a certain race, for example race ‘A,’ when he was interacting with another person of race ‘A.’ And later, he pretended to be of race ‘B’ (when interacting with a person of that race), thus creating havoc on the Internet,” he told reporters during a news conference at the Multimedia Asia ‘98 exhibition. He said it is now up to the police to take further action against the person. Deputy CID Director for commercial crimes, Deputy Commissioner Sedek Ali, confirmed that police were “working closely” with local ISPs and warned “those responsible” not to abuse the Net.

“Our investigations are purely within the ambit of the law, and also to safeguard national security,” he said, declining further details.

Published in Asia BizTech, Sept 30, 1998

by Julian Matthews, Asia BizTech Correspondent

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