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

    US, Allies Discuss Next Steps in Islamic State Fight

    Meeting comes a day after US Navy SEAL was killed while fighting Islamic State forces in northern Iraq

    In China, Traditional Banks Fight Challenge From Internet Firms

    Internet companies lent more than $150 billion to customers in 2015, which is an extremely small amount compared to the much larger lending by commercial banks last year

    Trump Faces Tough Presidential Odds Against Clinton

    According to analysts, early indications are that Republican front-runner faces daunting contest against likely Democratic candidate, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Press Freedom in Myanmar Fragile, Limitedi
    X
    Katie Arnold
    May 04, 2016 12:31 PM
    As Myanmar begins a new era with a democratically elected government, many issues of the past confront the new leadership. Among them is press freedom in a country where journalists have been routinely harassed or jailed.
    Video

    Video Press Freedom in Myanmar Fragile, Limited

    As Myanmar begins a new era with a democratically elected government, many issues of the past confront the new leadership. Among them is press freedom in a country where journalists have been routinely harassed or jailed.
    Video

    Video Taliban Threats Force Messi Fan to Leave Afghanistan

    A young Afghan boy, who recently received autographed shirts and a football from his soccer hero Lionel Messi, has fled his country due to safety concerns. He and his family are now taking refuge in neighboring Pakistan. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from Islamabad.
    Video

    Video Major Rubbish Burning Experiment Captures Destructive Greenhouse Gases

    The world’s first test to capture environmentally harmful carbon dioxide gases from the fumes of burning rubbish took place recently in Oslo, Norway. The successful experiment at the city's main incinerator plant, showcased a method for capturing most of the carbon dioxide. VOA’s Deborah Block has more.
    Video

    Video EU Visa Block Threatens To Derail EU-Turkey Migrant Deal

    Turkish citizens could soon benefit from visa-free travel to Europe as part of the recent deal between the EU and Ankara to stem the flow of refugees. In return, Turkey has pledged to keep the migrants on Turkish soil and crack down on those who are smuggling them. Brussels is set to publish its latest progress report Wednesday — but as Henry Ridgwell reports from London, many EU lawmakers are threatening to veto the deal over human rights concerns.
    Video

    Video Tensions Rising Ahead of South China Sea Ruling

    As the Philippines awaits an international arbitration ruling on a challenge to China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, it is already becoming clear that regardless of which way the decision goes, the dispute is intensifying. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
    Video

    Video Painting Captures President Lincoln Assassination Aftermath

    A newly restored painting captures the moments following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. It was recently unveiled at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, where America’s 16th president was shot. It is the only known painting by an eyewitness that captures the horror of that fateful night. VOA’s Julie Taboh tells us more about the painting and what it took to restore it to its original condition.
    Video

    Video Elephant Summit Results in $5M in Pledges, Presidential Support

    Attended and supported by three African presidents, a three-day anti-poaching summit has concluded in Kenya, resulting in $5 million in pledges and a united message to the world that elephants are worth more alive than dead. The summit culminated at the Nairobi National Park with the largest ivory burn in history. VOA’s Jill Craig attended the summit and has this report about the outcomes.
    Video

    Video Displaced By War, Syrian Artist Finds Inspiration Abroad

    Saudi-born Syrian painter Mohammad Zaza is among the millions who fled their home for an uncertain future after Syria's civil war broke out. Since fleeing Syria, Zaza has lived in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and now Turkey where his latest exhibition, “Earth is Blue like an Orange,” opened in Istanbul. He spoke with VOA about how being displaced by the Syrian civil war has affected the country's artists.
    Video

    Video Ethiopia’s Drought Takes Toll on Children

    Ethiopia is dealing with its worst drought in decades, thanks to El Nino weather patterns. An estimated 10 million people urgently need food aid. Six million of them are children, whose development may be compromised without sufficient help, Marthe van der Wolf reports for VOA from the Metahara district.
    Video

    Video Little Havana - a Slice of Cuban Culture in Florida

    Hispanic culture permeates everything in Miami’s Little Havana area: elderly men playing dominoes as they discuss politics, cigar rollers deep at work, or Cuban exiles talking with presidential candidates at a Cuban coffee window. With the recent rapprochement between Cuba and United States, one can only expect stronger ties between South Florida and Cuba.
    Video

    Video California Republicans Weigh Presidential Choices Amid Protests

    Republican presidential candidates have been wooing local party leaders in California, a state that could be decisive in selecting the party's nominee for U.S. president. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports delegates to the California party convention have been evaluating choices, while front-runner Donald Trump drew hundreds of raucous protesters Friday.
    Video

    Video ‘The Lights of Africa’ - Through the Eyes of 54 Artists

    An exhibition bringing together the work of 54 African artists, one from each country, is touring the continent after debuting at COP21 in Paris. Called "Lumières d'Afrique," the show centers on access to electricity and, more figuratively, ideas that enlighten. Emilie Iob reports from Abidjan, the exhibition's first stop.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora