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Malaysia losing fight against cyber protest

"THIS IS probably the first chance in the world to see the internet used as a real instigator of a protest movement," says Stan Sesser, of the University of California. He is examining the role of the internet in countries which try to control the flow of information. The anti-government protests sweeping Malaysia have provided the perfect case study.

Within two days of the arrest in September of Anwar Ibrahim, until then deputy to the Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, a website was launched to promote his defence. There are now over 60 pro-reform sites, one of which reports it has received more than 2.5 million "hits".

Malaysia's government-controlled press and electronic media are giving enormous coverage to Mr Anwar's trial and even to the protests in his favour, but, says Mr Sesser, "it is glaringly and shockingly manipulating the facts to support (Prime Minister) Mahathir". Public disillusion with the official media is so great that many people have stopped buying newspapers. The circulation of the leading paper, the New Straits Times, is said to have fallen to 130,000 from 200,000.

The internet is having an unprecedented impact, despite the fact that there are no more than some 50,000 registered users in Malaysia. These users, mainly young and mainly middle class, are downloading information from the websites and distributing it to a far wider audience, usually at Friday services in the packed mosques.

But the effect can be far more immediate. One main website organiser told Mr Sesser that it took one to two hours to organise a demonstration using websites and get people on the streets. As soon as demonstrations dispersed, reports and pictures are posted on the internet, giving details of what happened.

The websites have also become mass forums for public debates, inevitably spawning rival sites which support the government's campaign against Mr Anwar and the reform movement. One of the most popular sites is one which brilliantly uses humour to mock the government. Borrowing the style of a popular series of computer guides, it advertises an imaginary book called Anwar for Dummies, which promises to tell readers "what to do when you realised you've stolen too much of the people's money - explained in plain English".

The government is relatively powerless to prevent the spread of information - and a fair amount of misinformation - on the net. In August three internet users were arrested and charged with publishing false reports about race riots, but the amount of unease and panic buying of food stocks these reports caused gave some idea just how influential the internet had become in Malaysia.

Other countries in South-east Asia, notably Vietnam and Singapore, have been making considerable efforts to stop the distribution of material which the authorities dislike. State control is maintained over the servers through which internet users have to pass to gain access to the World Wide Web, but as Mr Sesser points out, it takes no more than a couple of seconds to circumvent these barriers by linking with proxy servers, which have not been banned, using them to gain access to blocked websites.

In Indonesia, where the reform movement dislodged the three-decade dictatorship of President Suharto, the internet was widely used by protesting students to get information about what was happening and to liaise across the country.

The press in Indonesia has become more outspoken, and as the perception spreads that it is a more reliable source of information, reliance on the net has diminished.

However much other countries would like to achieve the same effect, they are unlikely to choose the same means.