Meet LGBTQ activists struggling to be themselves online in Malaysia

Many online attacks on LGBTQ Malaysia start with their other social media users (although some suspect that political or religious groups may be helping to coordinate them). Personal threats may escalate. For example, when a social media post or account is deemed “insulting Islam” and reported to the police, the poster could face state surveillance, arrest, and prosecution. Many of these responses were made under the auspices of the controversial Communications and Multimedia Act, a law passed in 1998 that gives authorities broad powers to regulate domestic media and media.

After the government threatened to prosecute him for organizing an LGBTQ event, Numan Afifi, one of Malaysia’s most prominent activists, packed up his suitcase, quit his job and fled the country in July of this year. 2017. He has spent six months moving between six different countries, often sleeping on the couch, with no income and not knowing if he will ever return. He said that law firms have offered him full support to apply for asylum.

But ahead of the 2018 election, which many hoped would usher in a more progressive government, Afifi returned home instead. “I decided to come back with faith in my Malaysian dream,” he tweeted about the time in 2019. “I still believe in that dream, for myself and for the thousands of gay children who are struggling in our schools just like I am.” Doesn’t he feel the risk? “Yes, every time,” he said. “But you still have to because people need our services. I have to do this.”

Pakatan Harapan, a coalition that is said to follow a more progressive political line, won the May 2018 elections in Malaysia. And at first, there were signs the group was aiming to deliver on its promise to put human rights improvements, including LGBTQ rights, at the top of its political agenda.. A week after the administration, Afifi was appointed as a press officer by the Minister of Youth and Sports. In July, the newly appointed religious affairs minister called for an end to discrimination against LGBTQ people in the workplace, seen as a significant breakthrough from the status quo. But within a few months, there was a series of notable setbacks. Afifi resigned amid public backlash over the appointment of an LGBTQ activist. Police raid a nightclub in Kuala Lumpur popular with gay men. Two women were arrested and punished for “attempting to have lesbian sex” in a car.

Since the 2018 election, human rights campaigners have warned of a disturbing erosion of human rights in the country, an issue that extends beyond the treatment of the LGBTQ community to the treatment of the LGBTQ community. with migrants and broader issues of censorship and free speech. In June 2021, during Pride Month, a government task force even went so far as to propose extending existing Sharia law to allow action against those who insult Islam, to specifically aimed at people who “promote the LGBT lifestyle” online. “Things got worse, like really, really bad,” said one activist, who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons. “I don’t know what will happen.”

Despite the risks, many activists remain adamant: if online platforms are the latest battleground for LGBTQ rights, that’s exactly where they will make their footing.

For example, at organizations like the cross-led SEED Foundation in Kuala Lumpur, experts have been sent in to train members in the intricacies of cybersecurity, teaching them how to prevent devices from being stolen. track, protect social media accounts from being hacked, and prevent emails from being tracked.

Malaysian authorities often invoke their powers under Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act to block access to websites, personal blogs and news articles. The law allows for 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 like Planet Romeo and Gay Star News. Though equally vulnerable, smaller domestic locations have so far avoided this fate. But many people remain wary about digital security. One activist said the website she joins regularly faces attacks every six months. “We always have to think about back-end security, with risk assessments for everything we do,” she added.

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