Meet the LGBTQ activists fighting to be themselves online in Malaysia
Many online attacks against LGBTQ Malaysians begin with fellow social media users (although some suspect political or religious groups may help coordinate them). Individual threats can escalate. When a social media post or account is considered “insulting to Islam” and reported to the police, for example, the post may be subject to surveillance, arrest and prosecution. by the state. Many of these responses are being carried out under the auspices of the controversial Multimedia and Communications Act, a law passed in 1998 that gives authorities sweeping powers to regulate media and communications in the country.
After the government threatened him with legal action for hosting an LGBTQ event, Numan Afifi, one of Malaysia’s most prominent activists, packed up, quit his job and fled the country in July 2017. He spent six months traveling to six different countries. , often sleeping on sofas, with no income and not knowing if he would return. He says law firms have offered him pro bono support in seeking asylum.
But before the 2018 elections, which many hoped would usher in a more progressive government, Afifi went home instead. “I decided to come back believing in my Malaysian dream,” he said. tweeted from the period in 2019. “I still believe in that dream, for myself and for the thousands of struggling gay kids in our schools who were just like me.” Doesn’t he feel in danger? “Yes, all the time,” he said. “But you still have to do it because people need our services. I have to do it.”
Pakatan Harapan, a coalition considered the most progressive on the political spectrum, won Malaysia’s elections in May 2018. And early on there were signs the group was aiming to deliver on its promise to put improved human rights rights, including LGBTQ rights, at the top of his political agenda.. A week into the administration, Afifi himself was appointed press officer by the Minister of Youth and Sports. In July, the new religious affairs minister called for an end to discrimination against LGBTQ people in the workplace, which was seen as a significant break with the status quo. But within a few months, there was a series of high-profile regressions. Afifi quit as public backlash grew over the nomination of an LGBTQ activist. Police raided a Kuala Lumpur nightclub popular with gay people. Two women were arrested and caned for “attempting lesbian sex” in a car.
Since the 2018 election, human rights activists have warned of a worrying erosion of human rights in the country, which extends beyond the treatment of LGBTQ communities to the treatment of migrants and broader issues of censorship and of freedom of expression. In June 2021, during Pride Month, a government task force even went so far as to propose expanding an existing Sharia law that already allows action against those who insult Islam, to specifically target people who “promote LGBT lifestyles” online. “Things are only getting worse, really, really badly,” says one activist, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. “I don’t know what will happen.”
Despite the risks, many activists are unequivocal: If online platforms are the last battleground for LGBTQ rights, this is exactly where they will take a stand.
At organizations such as the trans-directed SEED foundation in Kuala Lumpur, for example, experts have been brought in to train members on the intricacies of cybersecurity, teaching them how to prevent device tracking, protect social media accounts against hacking and prevent tracking of e-mails.
Malaysian authorities regularly invoke their powers under Section 233 of the Multimedia and Communications Act to block access to websites, private blogs and news articles. The law authorizes the removal of any content deemed “obscene, indecent, false, threatening or offensive”, a definition that has been used to censor international LGBTQ websites, such as Planet Romeo and Gay Star News. Although equally vulnerable, small domestic sites have so far avoided this fate. But many remain vigilant about digital security. One activist says the site she is involved with faces hacks as often as every six months. “We have to think about back-end security all the time, with risk assessments for everything we do,” she adds.