News / Asia

    In Malaysia, Online Election Battles Take Nasty Turn

    A screen shows an error message on a malaysiakini.com website at its office in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, May 3, 2013.
    A screen shows an error message on a malaysiakini.com website at its office in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, May 3, 2013.
    Reuters
    Ahead of Malayasia's elections on Sunday, independent online media say they are being targeted in Internet attacks which filter content and throttle access to websites, threatening to deprive voters of their main source of independent reporting.

    Independent online news sites have emerged in recent years to challenge the dominance of mostly government-linked traditional media. The government denies any attempts to hobble access to the Internet in the run-up to a close-fought election.

    "During the 2008 election we were wiped off the Internet," said Premesh Chandran, CEO of independent online news provider Malaysiakini. "Our concern is that we'll see a repeat of that on May 5. Can we really live without independent media on election night, given that both sides might not accept the result?''

    Malaysiakini was set up in the late 1990s to test the government's push to lure technology companies to the country by promising not to censor the Internet. Other news websites have followed, including The Malaysian Insider, which set up shop down the street from Malaysiakini in 2008.

    Such websites have emerged as an important source of news to counter the traditional media, most of which are owned by interests linked to the ruling Barisan Nasional or BN coalition.

    Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak (C) waves a national flag as he sings patriotic songs with supporters during an election campaign rally in Rawang, outside Kuala Lumpur April 28, 2013.Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak (C) waves a national flag as he sings patriotic songs with supporters during an election campaign rally in Rawang, outside Kuala Lumpur April 28, 2013.
    x
    Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak (C) waves a national flag as he sings patriotic songs with supporters during an election campaign rally in Rawang, outside Kuala Lumpur April 28, 2013.
    Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak (C) waves a national flag as he sings patriotic songs with supporters during an election campaign rally in Rawang, outside Kuala Lumpur April 28, 2013.
    The BN's dominance of media is one of its crucial advantages as it fends off an increasingly potent opposition that made impressive election gains in 2008. Sunday's election is expected to be the closest yet, though Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is favored to win.

    Leading opposition politicians who attract big campaign crowds in cities say they get a much cooler reception in rural areas, where access to the Internet is rarer.

    Malaysia ranked 145th on a list of 179 countries in this year's World Press Freedom report released by Reporters Without Borders. It was Malaysia's lowest ever ranking.

    A survey released on Friday by the University of Nottingham's Malaysia campus and Malaysia's Center for Independent Journalism found that online media gave almost equal coverage to the opposition and government parties, while traditional media focused on the ruling BN coalition and its parties "by a significant margin."

    Police raids to online attacks

    Malaysiakini, the most popular of such websites, has weathered several storms, including police raids, denied access to press conferences, accusations of being linked to foreign agents and requests to take down content, Chandran said.

    But in recent years the tactics appear to have shifted towards knocking the site offline, primarily through distributed denial of service, or DDOS, attacks, where servers are deluged by thousands of requests at the same time.

    Harlan Mandel, CEO of New York-based Media Development Investment Fund, which has worked with Malaysiakini for more than a decade and is a minority investor, said in an e-mail interview that Malaysiakini had become a focus for attack after "establishing itself as the go-to site for reliable election reporting for millions of Malaysians" in 2008.

    "Since then, it has come under repeated cyber attacks, generally coinciding with sensitive political events like local elections and political rallies," said Mandel.

    Malaysiakini is not alone. Last month a DDOS attack brought down three related London-based radio web portals, according to Clare Rewcastle Brown, their Malaysian-born founder.

    Jahabar Sadiq, CEO of Kuala Lumpur-based The Malaysian Insider, said his news service had come under heavy DDOS attack shortly after six of his staff were summoned to the regulator, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission or MCMC, a few weeks ago. They were asked, among other questions, for technical details about their service provider.

    "It can't be a coincidence," he said in an interview. "They were asking questions about our architecture which weren't required."
        
    Backup U.S. servers


    At least half a dozen news or political websites have now shifted their servers to U.S.-based CloudFlare, which offers protection against DDOS attacks for a fraction of the cost other companies charge. CloudFlare said that attacks on such sites had increased in the past week, mostly from Malaysia-based computers or IP addresses it had not previously seen involved in attacks.

    Now, Malaysiakini's Chandran and others say, their attackers appear to have shifted gear again.

    The Malaysian Insider's mail service, which allows users to e-mail articles to others, was hacked two weeks ago, Sadiq said, triggering it to queue tens of thousands of mails to send to users within a couple of hours.

    Malaysiakini's Chandran says the most recent wave of disruptions began late last month when users complained the site could only be accessed intermittently. One minute users could access the site, the next they couldn't.

    They figured out that only those using Internet service providers who channel their traffic through state-controlled Telekom Malaysia Berhad were affected, while those accessing through smaller ISPs who use an international gateway were still able to access the site.

    "It's a smarter way to do it," said Chandran. "It's a guerrilla style in that it creeps up on you and it's harder to detect."

    Shortly after complaining informally to the MCMC, Chandran said, the attack stopped.

    Since then, Malaysiakini discovered that some political sensitive videos it had posted on YouTube could not be viewed if accessed from some local ISPs and some Facebook pages featuring election-related content were also affected.

    Such tactics appear to be using what is called deep packet inspection, where Internet traffic is monitored and filtered via specific keywords, links or digital signatures, which would require access to the ISP.

    Investigation launched

    The MCMC said on Thursday that it was investigating such complaints but that "preliminary investigations indicate that there were no such restrictions by ISPs as alleged by certain quarters."

    Telekom Malaysia said in a written response to questions from Reuters that it had set up a taskforce and network operating Centrex to ensure that its network ran smoothly for its customers during the election period.

    "Malaysia has a free, open and robust online media environment. The government does not censor the Internet and welcomes constructive criticism as part of the democratic process," said a government spokesman told Reuters.

    "We deny any involvement in cyber-attacks. The government does not condone attacks against the media in any form."

    Indeed, Malaysiakini's Chandran and others are careful not to accuse the government or Telekom Malaysia directly.

    "We are an Internet-based company, we don't want to pick a fight with a telco, we need them," Chandran said. "Besides we can't tell whether they're doing it on purpose."

    It's almost impossible to figure out who is behind the attacks and not easy to distinguish between a deliberate assault and the technical issues of handling large and fluctuating waves of traffic. Independent security experts said the available evidence appeared to confirm Malaysiakini's conclusions.

    Dhillon Andrew Kannabhiran, Malaysian founder and CEO of the Hack In The Box conferences, said that "stuff is being filtered or slowed down or otherwise being messed around with for sure" on Telekom Malaysia's network, but he said that it could have been done without the company's say-so or knowledge.

    In the meantime, websites are preparing for the worst by mirroring content on other domain names and on Facebook. The Malaysian Insider has also set up a mirror outside the country at themalaysianoutsider.com.

    Whatever the outcome of Sunday's election, Malaysia's increasingly sophisticated Internet battleground reflects the future of struggles to control and influence of information.

    The election-related DDOS attacks in Malaysia "follows a trend we've seen elsewhere where DDOS is becoming a part of many elections," said Matthew Prince, co-founder CEO of CloudFlare.

    Malaysia illustrated how political parties and the powers-that-be are starting to use the Internet, said Mikko Hipponen, chief research officer of Helsinki-based Internet security company F-Secure which has large lab in Kuala Lumpur.

    "They are taking a much more active role and, in some parts of the world, they are not afraid to use the more offensive technologies to get what they want," said Hipponen. "I believe we'll be seeing much more of this."

    You May Like

    Escalation of Media Crackdown in Turkey Heightens Concerns

    Critics see 'a new dark age' as arrests of journalists, closures of media outlets by Erdogan government mount

    Russia Boasts of Troop Buildup on Flank, Draws Flak

    Russian military moves counter to efforts to de-escalate tensions, State Department says

    Video Iraqis Primed to March on Mosul, Foreign Minister Says

    Iraqi FM Ibrahim al-Jaafari tells VOA the campaign will meet optimistic expectations, even though US officials remain cautious

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Processi
    X
    Katherine Gypson
    July 27, 2016 6:21 PM
    It’s been a bitter and divisive election season – but first time Indian-American delegate Dr. Shashi Gupta headed to the Democratic National Convention with a sense of hope. VOA’s Katherine Gypson followed this immigrant with the love of U.S. politics all the way to Philadelphia.
    Video

    Video Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Process

    It’s been a bitter and divisive election season – but first time Indian-American delegate Dr. Shashi Gupta headed to the Democratic National Convention with a sense of hope. VOA’s Katherine Gypson followed this immigrant with the love of U.S. politics all the way to Philadelphia.
    Video

    Video A Life of Fighting Back: Hillary Clinton Shatters Glass Ceiling

    Hillary Clinton made history Thursday, overcoming personal and political setbacks to become the first woman to win the presidential nomination of a major U.S. political party. If she wins in November, she will go from “first lady” to U.S. Senator from New York, to Secretary of State, to “Madam President.” Polls show Clinton is both beloved and despised. White House Correspondent Cindy Saine takes a look at the life of the woman both supporters and detractors agree is a fighter for the ages.
    Video

    Video Dutch Entrepreneurs Turn Rainwater Into Beer

    June has been recorded as one of the wettest months in more than a century in many parts of Europe. To a group of entrepreneurs in Amsterdam the rain came as a blessing, as they used the extra water to brew beer. Serginho Roosblad has more to the story.
    Video

    Video First Time Delegate’s First Day Frustrations

    With thousands of people filling the streets of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for the 2016 Democratic National Convention, VOA’s Kane Farabaugh narrowed in on one delegate as she made her first trip to a national party convention. It was a day that was anything but routine for this United States military veteran.
    Video

    Video Commerce Thrives on US-Mexico Border

    At the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia this week, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, is expected to attack proposals made by her opponent, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Last Friday, President Barack Obama hosted his Mexican counterpart, President Enrique Peña Nieto, to underscore the good relations between the two countries. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Tucson.
    Video

    Video Film Helps Save Ethiopian Children Thought to be Cursed

    'Omo Child' looks at effort of African man to stop killings of ‘mingi’ children
    Video

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video Recycling Lifeline for Lebanon’s Last Glassblowers

    In a small Lebanese coastal town, one family is preserving a craft that stretches back millennia. The art of glass blowing was developed by Phoenicians in the region, and the Khalifehs say they are the only ones keeping the skill alive in Lebanon. But despite teaming up with an eco-entrepreneur and receiving an unexpected boost from the country’s recent trash crisis the future remains uncertain. John Owens reports from Sarafand.
    Video

    Video Migrants Continue to Risk Lives Crossing US Border from Mexico

    In his speech Thursday before the Republican National Convention, the party’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, reiterated his proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border if elected. Polls show a large percentage of Americans support better control of the nation's southwestern border, but as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from the border town of Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora, the situation faced by people trying to cross the border is already daunting.
    Video

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video Calm the Waters: US Doubles Down Diplomatic Efforts in ASEAN Meetings

    The United States is redoubling diplomatic efforts and looking to upcoming regional meetings to calm the waters after an international tribunal invalidated the legal basis of Beijing's extensive claims in the South China Sea. VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching has the story.
    Video

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora