Malaysia PM Sues an Online Gadfly

Is it time for the Singapore gambit – unlosable lawsuits in your own courts to stop critics?

After enduring five years of up to a million negative comments, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak apparently has had enough. He has filed suit for defamation against Malaysiakini, the Kuala Lumpur-based website that is the most prominent of the country’s opposition press.

The lawsuit is based on comments from readers about the prime minister or his wife in the news site’s “Your Say” column and not on the journalism itself. The suit raises questions over why it is being filed now rather than years ago given the flood of critical comment in the reader reaction pages.

“We’ve had lots of comments, lots of them far worse than the ones cited in the lawsuit,” said Steven Gan, the news site’s editor in chief. “Somebody must have given him pretty bad legal advice. “

Gan said the news site would fight the lawsuit. “This case will go on,” Gan said. “We will carry on as before. We definitely are not intimidated by this, we will wait and see what happens.”

Malaysiakini is the largest web-based news portal in Malaysia, with 400,000 daily unique visitors. It has been a consistent government crotoc. Under Malaysia's Printing Presses and Publications Act, all printed publications must have a government-issued license, which the minister of home affairs is empowered to withhold at will. Internet-based outlets do not need a license. Shawn Crispin, the Bangkok-based senior Southeast Asian representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, was not immediately available for comment. But in an earlier report, he wrote that “while it is not clear that Malaysia directly filters online content, the authorities have openly harassed and pressured critical bloggers and probing news sites. Despite the Internet freedoms guaranteed under the Communication and Multimedia Act, bloggers have been detained and charged under provisions of the Official Secrets Act, the Sedition Act, and the Security Offenses Act for postings on such sensitive topics as race, religion, and official corruption.”

Malaysiakini, Crispin wrote, “the country's leading online news portal, has been persistently singled out for harassment, both from official and anonymous sources. Days before a pivotal state election in 2011, Malaysiakini and two other news websites were hit by debilitating denial-of-service attacks of unknown origin that forced them to publish through alternative domain names and platforms. Malaysiakini has been hit by unexplained cyberattacks at least 35 times since the site was founded in 1999, according to CPJ research.”

It’s unclear whether Najib and other Malaysian officials are now going to step up their use of the courts to go after the independent press. But Human Rights Watch, in a press release from its Bangkok office, charged that “government officials in Malaysia have long resorted to private lawsuits and draconian state laws to restrict freedom of expression and the media.”

The statement added that Najib “should end efforts to sue [Malaysiakini] for publishing critical reader comments.” The prime minister’s “heavy-handed efforts to compel a critical website to toe the line displays a fundamental disregard for press freedom,'' said Phil Robertson, deputy HRW Asia director. ''Najib should recognize that being a political leader means being tough enough to take public criticism from voters and the media.'' Malaysiakini has been sued once before, by Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud over a story alleging Taib’s connection to the transport of illegal logs to Japan. The news site settled out of court with an apology.

Many of the statements cited in the lawsuit have pertained to stories long covered by Asia Sentinel and other publications. For instance, one column, asking "How much will Najib spend to keep Terengganu?" suggests that there has been corruption in the government. Asia Sentinel reported on May 15 that "there were rumors that substantial monetary inducements might be in the works…" A. Kadir Jasin, a former New Straits Times group chief editor and ally of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, was quoted as blogging: "This is just the early stages. Politicians can change their mind freely if the price is right, it is often said that trustworthy politicians don't exist any more."

Another was by Hearty Malaysian, who said, "Najib has only himself to blame for the mess he is in. He is the worst performing PM in Malaysian history. Right from letting his wife Rosmah Mansor run the show so glaringly, trying to fool the masses on various matters… including 'the dead Mongolian woman,'" a reference to Mongolian translator Altuntuya Shaariibuu, who was shot dead in 2006 by two of Najib’s bodyguards who were acquitted after a flawed trial.

There was also a reference to the theft of two J85 jet engines from a military base that became the subject of a quiet diplomatic squabble between the US and Malaysia. The engines were finally discovered in Uruguay and returned to Malaysia.

Other comments cited in the lawsuit are generally embarrassing to the prime minister. “Najib,” Anonymous wrote, “has no moral right whatever wrong done by his cabinet ministers or others for fear the same whatever skeletons he has been hiding.”

Headhunter wrote that “playing with religious and racial issues to gain support from one section of the community and malign the rest is a political no-no,” The UMNO government has long been accused of using religious and racial issues to do exactly that, including in scores of articles in Asia Sentinel.

Human Rights Watch noted that “the United Nations Human Rights Committee, an international expert body that interprets the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in its general comment on the right to freedom of expression, said that ‘the penalization of a media outlet, publishers or journalist solely for being critical of the government or the political social system espoused by the government can never be considered to be a necessary restriction of freedom of expression.'''