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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: The TikTok app logo is seen in this illustration taken August 22, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

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By Rozanna Latiff and Danial Azhar

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) -Facebook-owner Meta and China’s TikTok restricted a record number of social media posts and accounts in Malaysia in the first six months of 2023, data published by the firms showed, amid a jump in government requests to remove content.

Malaysia Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s administration, which came to power in November 2022 on a reformist platform, has faced accusations of backpedaling on its promises to protect freedom of speech amid increased scrutiny of online content in recent months.

The government has denied allegations of stifling dissent online, saying it wanted to curb provocative posts that touch on race, religion and royalty.

Between January and June this year, Meta restricted about 3,100 pages and posts on its Facebook (NASDAQ:) and Instagram platforms from being viewed by users in Malaysia because they were reported to have allegedly violated local laws, according to data published in the firm’s twice-yearly Transparency Report this month.

The figure was six times higher than in the previous half-year period and the highest since the company began reporting content restrictions in Malaysia in 2017.

Malaysia’s communications regulator said in a statement late on Friday that its efforts to request the removal of content on social media platforms were aimed at protecting users from “the significant increase of online harms, and not about stifling diverse views”.

Meta said between July 2022 and June 2023, it restricted access to more than 3,500 items in response to reports by Malaysia’s communications regulator and other government agencies.

The content included criticism of the government and posts that allegedly violated laws on illegal gambling, hate speech, racially or religiously divisive content, bullying and financial scams, Meta’s report said.

Short video platform TikTok, in a similar report issued last month, said it had received 340 requests from the Malaysian government to remove or restrict content between January and June 2023, affecting 890 posts and accounts.

TikTok removed or restricted 815 of those for violating local laws or the platform’s community guidelines – the highest in a six-month period since it began reporting requests from Malaysia in 2019, the data showed. It was triple the number TikTok removed in the second half of 2022.

Malaysia made more requests to restrict content on TikTok than any other government in Southeast Asia, the data showed. Meta did not publish the total number of government requests it received for content restrictions.

The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission said on Friday its statistics showed a 24-fold increase in harmful content on social media platforms, rising to 25,642 in 2023 from 1,019 the previous year, and including scams, illegal sales, gambling, fake news and hate speech.

The commission did not provide a breakdown on the allegedly harmful content found on each platform.

Communications Minister Fahmi Fadzil said this week the communications regulator often acted upon complaints from ordinary users, denying allegations that he had requested the agency to seek the removal of posts critical of him on social media.

Race and religion are sensitive issues in Malaysia, which has a predominantly Muslim ethnic Malay population but significant ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities. It also has laws prohibiting seditious remarks or insults against its monarchy.

Fahmi said in October that TikTok had not done enough to curb defamatory or misleading content on its platform and accused it of failing to comply with some local laws. TikTok said it would take proactive measures to address the issues raised.

The government also threatened to take legal action against Meta for failing to act against “undesirable” content but dropped the plan after meetings with the company.

Free speech group Article 19 denounced the removal of posts critical of the government and expressed concerns over its increased requests to restrict content, warning that it could stifle legitimate free speech and expression.

“It is never permissible to prohibit expression solely because it casts a critical view on social issues, public figures or government institutions,” said Nalini Elumalai, its senior Malaysia programme officer.

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