Malaysia denies censoring BBC report on prime minister's water spinach speech

The authorities in Malaysia denied on Thursday they had prevented online access to a BBC article about citizens making fun of Prime Minister Najib Razak

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 January, 2014, 3:55pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 January, 2014, 3:55pm

Malaysia’s internet regulator on Thursday denied accusations that it was blocking access to a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) report about netizens in the Muslim-majority nation lampooning the country’s prime minister.

Najib Razak’s administration faces public discontent over hikes in government-controlled fuel and power prices.

The prime minister responded to the criticism in a weekend speech in which he highlighted a drop in the price of water spinach, a common dish in Malaysian cuisine known locally as “kangkung”.

Malaysians soon began mocking the aristocratic Najib – who recently came under fire for travelling with his wife on luxurious private jets at the taxpayer’s expense – as being out of touch with common citizens.

Critics posted thousands of tweets and a Facebook page simply titled “Kangkung” that pokes fun at Najib has garnered 18,000 likes, while local media said “Keep Calm and Eat Kangkung” t-shirts have gone on sale.

The BBC picked up the story in a report on its website on Tuesday, but many Malaysian web-users began to complain that they could not access it about 24 hours later, sparking accusations it was being blocked by the authorities in Kuala Lumpur.

The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) told reporters it had not blocked the page, but said various Malaysian service providers could have acted of their own accord.

“Not that I know of. From our end there is no block,” its corporate communications head Sheikh Raffie Abdul Rahman said.

News portal Malaysiakini also quoted him as saying that the inaccessibility could be due to an overload by users accessing the page.

But Malaysian technology sites ruled this out, saying it would have affected the entire BBC site, not a particular page.

They also reported that the block appeared to have been lifted by noon on Thursday.

The problem appeared to mainly affect those using government-controlled Telekom Malaysia’s (TM) internet service.

A TM spokeswoman said the company was “checking with our network team” on the issue.

Malaysia’s now-57-year-old ruling coalition pledged in the 1990s that it would never censor the internet, in a bid to lure high-tech foreign investment.

Najib led the coalition to its worst election showing in its history last year as support has slid amid public fatigue over corruption, divisive racial politics and a sense of drift.

Government subsides have helped keep the prices of basic goods low for years. But Najib late last year announced plans to reduce subsidies in a bid to corral spiralling public debt.