Sedition Axe Falls on Malaysian Press

Malaysia’s sedition campaign, which in recent weeks has resulted in charges against eight opposition politicians, apparently has been extended to the country’s independent press, with the arrest on Thursday of Susan Loone, a Penang-based reporter for Malaysiakini (Our Malaysia), one of Malaysia’s most popular news websites.

Loone was told to report to the police in Penang, where she underwent nine hours of questioning and had her cellphone confiscated over the publication of a story on the arrest Sunday in Penang of Phee Boon Poh, the chairperson of a voluntary patrol unit sanctioned by the Democratic Action Party leadership along with 156 members of the patrol unit. Phee is an executive counselor with the DAP. According to Loone’s story, the country’s inspector-general of police, Abu Bakar last Tuesday declared PPS an illegal organization because it wasn’t registered with the Registrar of Societies, calling the organization’s members “gangsters.”

“In a classic case of shooting the messenger, Loone has been detained by police for reporting what somebody else has said,”: according to a statement by Malaysia’s Center for Independent Journalism. “Loone's arrest is the latest in a spate of investigations that are clearly aimed at curtailing legitimate voices of dissent.

The investigations, the CIJ said, “are taking place after the government's stated intention to repeal the Sedition Act, a hangover from the colonial era. The Act is broadly worded and poses a significant threat to the right to freedom of expression enshrined in the Federal Constitution. Further, the history of prosecutions under the Act show that it is almost exclusively used against critics of the government or State institutions.”

The arrest of Loone, along with the crackdown on Phee and the other opposition leaders, is apparently a manifestation of orders by the United Malays National Organization Supreme Council to Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak to get tough on the opposition after months of drift on the part of the premier. Malaysiakini, with a daily readership of 400,000, is one of the country’s biggest websites or possibly the biggest, publishing editions in Malay and English, and is fiercely critical of the government.

However, Malaysiakini has not been alone. Choon Mei, the editor of Malaysia Chronicle, reportedly has also been hauled in for questioning. Jahabar Sidiq, the editor of Malaysian Insider, said that although his publication has been threatened with lawsuits, that is pretty much where the intimidation has stopped. Raja Petra Kamarudin, the publisher of Malaysia Today, has long been out of the country after being charged with criminal defamation.

Some analysts regard the new crackdown as an indication of internal weakness on the part of UMNO and the Barisan Nasional, which lost the popular vote in the May 2013 general election for the first time since 1969 but retained Parliament through gerrymandering. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who publicly broke with Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak recently, saying he had withdrawn his support of the premier, has accused Najib of being too soft on the opposition.

The party and its components in the ruling Barisan Nasional have not been able to capitalize on growing dissatisfaction with the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition. A source close to the Mahathir wing of the party told Asia Sentinel that despite Pakatan’s disorganization and a months-long squabble over leadership in the state of Selangor, if an election were held today in Selangor, which is held by Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat, UMNO would probably still lose the state.

“I was told at the last Umno Supreme Council meeting that some of the members said that since the elections in 2013, the country has been floating around aimlessly,” said a political consultant with close ties to the UMNO leadership. “They suggested that Najib needs to show stronger leadership as Malays like leaders who are pahlawan or warriors. They said that unless the UMNO leadership showed it can be tough and firm, the party would continue losing the Malay ground. Since then, all these actions have been initiated against the opposition. I was also told that one of Najib's main advisers on talking and acting tough is Tan Sri Jamaluddin Jarjis, the former Second Finance Minister and Ambassador to Washington.”

Malaysiakini has suffered a long series of attempts by the government force it to pull in its horns, the biggest in 2003 when police raided the website, confiscating four servers and 15 personal computers after members of UMNO Youth complained that it had published a seditious letter to the editor. It has suffered distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks in which it is flooded with millions of simultaneous messages designed to overpower its servers. It was threatened by a lawsuit by Najib himself for defamation in June. The government has refused to issue a license that would allow Malaysiakini to issue a print edition.

The mainstream press – the New Straits Times, The Star and a flock of Malay-language newspapers -- are all owned by the major political parties in the ruling national coalition, as are the electronic media. They can be depended upon to form a noisy claque to defend the government when needed. Lately, After Najib came under attack Mahathir, the mainstream press lined up scores of UMNO members to express their support for Najib, although they never carried anything about Mahathir’s attack.

“Malaysia has embarked on a severe action against numerous activists, opposition politicians, journalists, students and academics. In the past, critics have been arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA), but now it is the Sedition Act that is increasingly used against individuals who have expressed their political, religious or other views,” said Margaret John, the coordinator for the Singapore and Malaysia chapter of Amnesty International Canada in an email to Asia Sentinel. “The arrests are a clear violation of international human rights law and have a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Malaysia.”

The two biggest press watchdog organizations, Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters without Borders, have not issued statements of support, possibly because they have been preoccupied with the brutal murders in Syria of US freelance journalists James Foley and Steven Sotlof by the radical fundamentalist organization Islamic State.

John Berthelsen is the editor of Asia Sentinel