Double Blow to Press Freedom in Malaysia

Prominent news portal, controversial book under attack

Press freedom in Malaysia took a double blow today (February 19), first with the country’s highest tribunal ruling that the influential news portal Malaysiakini must pay RM500,000 (US$124,000) for contempt for printing a quickly-erased third-party comment critical of the court system.

On the same day, police raided the publisher of former Attorney General Tommy Thomas’s controversial autobiography ‘My Story: Justice in the Wilderness,” confiscating the company’s computers in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Petaling Jaya.

In a severe threat to the perennially cash-short publication, the fine against Malaysiakini must be paid within three days from Feb. 22. Malaysiakini launched an immediate public appeal for funds to pay the assessment. UPDATE In a remarkable public vote of confidence and a rebuke to the court system, in a single day, the public appeal raised more than RM500,000, leaving the publication free to reserve funds for other uses.

The case against Malaysiakini, Malaysia’s first independent news outlet, was filed months ago by Attorney General Harun Idris, Thomas’s successor, after the online publication on June 9, 2020, published an article about the chief justice ordering the courts to be fully operational by July 1. Readers responded with five apparently derogatory comments concerning the article. Malaysiakini said it had deleted the comments quickly, two days later after being contacted by the police over the controversy.

The seven-member Federal Court heard arguments last July, but reserved its judgment at that time. The judgment, in a 6-1 ruling led by Court of Appeal president Rohana Yusuf, was met with shock because it was more than double the RM200,000 sought by the attorney general. Although Malaysiakini editor Steven Gan had been cited for criminal contempt in the case, he was not judged to be guilty of the contempt.

Malaysiakini officers were unavailable for comment at press time. However, in a statement on the website, Gan described disappointment, saying the decision “flies in the face of the fast-changing new media landscape in this country. It will have a tremendous chilling impact on discussions of issues of public interest and it delivers a body blow to our continual campaign to fight corruption, among others.”

As he also pointed out, Malaysia has been the focus of a long series of vast public scandals in which millions of dollars have fled overseas or disappeared outright. “What crime has Malaysiakini committed that we are forced to pay RM500,000 when there are individuals charged with abuse of power for millions and billions who are walking free?" he asked.

Several other press defense organizations including the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders earlier condemned the case and described it as an act to stifle press freedom, not only in Malaysia but across Asia, where reporters and publications have come under threat, most recently in Myanmar where the junta that took charge on February 1 has steadily been rolling up independent journalists.

“This ruling places onerous and unreasonable obligations on news portals to review and regulate every user comment,” said Nalini Elumalai, the program officer for ARTICLE 19, a Malaysia press defense organization. “The verdict sets a bad precedent with potentially far-reaching consequences. It erodes democratic freedoms and digital rights and risks promoting a climate of fear and self-censorship among Malaysian media and websites managers.”

ARTICLE 19, Elumalai said, “has consistently warned that laws and policies that punish Internet intermediaries for third-party content are incompatible with the right to freedom of expression. Online news sites should be considered hosts—rather than publishers—of messages made in comment sections or other message boards that are open to the public and should not be held responsible for such third-party content.”

“Regarding the fine levied against Malaysiakini, which significantly exceeded the amount requested by prosecutors, it’s clear both Malaysia’s government and courts are trying to ape Singapore’s tactics to attack independent media outlets, seeking to bankrupt Malaysiakini with an outrageously excessive financial penalty,” said Phil Robertson, Southeast Asia coordinator for Human Rights Watch. “So much for the Malaysian government’s tired, old tactics of pointing their finger at their neighbor and trying to say they are worse.”

Malaysiakini has been repeatedly in government sights almost since Gan and Premesh Chandran (above) established it, with the help of billionaire philanthropist George Soros in 1999. The publication, which claims millions of viewers per month, has repeatedly been raided by government officials, has had its computers confiscated and faced other harassment. However, it has never been charged with contempt of court so far.

Thomas Book Confiscated

 It was uncertain what kicked off the raid on Thomas’s publisher, GB Gerakbudaya Enterprise Sdn Bhd although the book has generated enormous controversy, with 134 police reports file against Thomas and the publisher. (Asia Sentinel reviewed the book on February 13). It has sold out its second printing of 5,000 copies, with Garakbudakaya publisher Chong Ton Sin asking for patience from the readers.

Thomas is being threatened with a RM10 million lawsuit from former Prime Minister Najib Razak for Thomas’s extended description of confessions of the two killers convicted of the gruesome 2006 murder of Mongolian party girl and translator Altantuya Shaariibuu, the jilted lover of a close Najib associate who played a role in a US$134 million defense scandal involving the purchase of French submarines. The two in their separate confessions said they had been ordered to kill the 28-year-old pregnant woman by Najib.

Millions of dollars in kickbacks over the purchase were suspected of being funneled into UMNO coffers. The book deals with a long list of other Malaysian controversies including the prosecution of Najib and other officials in the massive 1MDB scandal, the biggest financial meltdown in Malaysian history, in which US$4.5 billion disappeared, including US$681 million that allegedly went into Najib’s pockets. He has since been convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison, but remains free on appeal. The book is extremely critical of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on many levels.

One of its most controversial charges is that Tun Abdul Razak, Najib’s father, fomented the crisis in 1969 that led to disastrous race riots that killed hundreds and set the stage for the New Economic Policy, an affirmative action program for ethnic Malays that remains in place to this day, crippling the economy.

This article is among the stories we choose to make widely available. If you wish to get the full Asia Sentinel experience and access more exclusive content, please do subscribe to us.