Malaysia's Online Portal Malaysiakini's Court Victory

A high court justice in Kuala Lumpur yesterday in effect gave Malaysiakini, the independent news website, permission to publish a daily print edition over the objections of the Home Ministry.

Justice Abang Iskandar Abang Hashim’s ruling stands out at a time when the 13-year-old Malaysiakini website, which is consistently critical of the government, has come under unprecedented attack from the mainstream press, all of which are owned by political parties that are components of the Barisan Nasional, or national ruling coalition. At a time when national elections loom, and political analysts predict a closer race than ever, the decision assumes additional importance.

In particular, the government-controlled television station TV3, the Malay language daily Utusan Malaysia and the English-language dailies New Straits Times and The Star – have attacked the website for receiving grants from international foundations. One of those foreign investors allegedly was linked to George Soros, a mortal enemy of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has repeatedly charged that the billionaire financier was behind a plot to ruin the country’s economy.

Abang Iskandar’s decision also thus becomes a test of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s rhetoric in revising some of the colonial-era laws that harshly circumscribed civil freedoms, particularly the Internal Security Act which allows in effect for detention without trial. Najib also pushed legislation through Parliament modifying the Printing and Presses Act, under which all publications previously had to renew their printing licenses every year. However, since Malaysiakini has not yet been granted a license, it now has to reapply. If the government were to allow Malaysiakini’s permit to print in the fact of the current efforts to discredit the publication, that would be a significant

The government has the right to appeal the decision to a higher court and may well do so, Premesh Chandran, the website’s chief executive officer, told Asia Sentinel. In the past, the courts have reversed other politically significant decisions, including one in February 2010 by Kuala Lumpur High Court Judge Abdul Aziz Rahim that would have kept the Perak state government in opposition hands.

In another in March of 2011, High Court Judge Mohamad Zabidin Mohamad Diah reversed himself to allow the prosecution to admit into evidence items containing DNA taken from Anwar Ibrahim in the opposition leader's sodomy trial after first ruling that the evidence was inadmissible.

Founded in 1999 by editor Steven Gan and Chandran, Malaysiakini has grown into the country’s leading independent news portal, with 400 daily unique readers, at a time when the Internet has come to play a growing role in the political discourse. The publication has spawned a series of other operations in training citizen journalists and prints in three languages.

It and a flock of other online publications owe their existence to a decision by then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, at the time he was touting his multi-media super corridor, to promise that online content wouldn’t be censored. Accordingly online blogs were considered to have played a major role in opposition gains in the 2008 national elections that cost the national ruling coalition its two-thirds majority in parliament for the first time since Malaysia became an independent nation.

In quashing the ministry’s ruling to refuse Malaysiakini a publishing permit, Abang Iskandar used unusually stiff language, ruling that the ministry’s decision was “improper and irrational” and that the ministry’s decision exceeded the limits of its jurisdiction. He also ruled that the Home Ministry must pay RM5,000 (US$1,640) in costs for bringing the case to court.

“The decision affects the right of the plaintiff to the right to freedom of expression which also includes the right to a permit, and it is a fundamental liberty enshrined in the constitution,” Abang Iskandar ruled.

The justice noted that freedom of expression is enshrined in the federal constitution, saying the news portal has won numerous local and international awards. He also ordered the Home Ministry to pay RM5,000 in costs.

“The decision by the secretary-general to reject giving a permit is also a restriction of freedom of the press, which has long been recognized by the common law as a breach of the protection of free speech,” Malaysiakini’s lawyer, K Shanmuga told the court.

“It also violates the freedom of expression of journalists working inMalaysiakini as they have collectively won numerous awards. A judgment in India said the newspaper industry enjoys two of the fundamental rights - namely freedom of speech and expression".

Asked whether the decision will open the floodgates to anyone wanting to publish, Shanmuga said anybody can publish a residents’ newsletter, a village paper or association newsletter as they should be free to do so.

“It may lead to more publications and freedom of expression in Malaysia,” he said. However, that will likely have to wait until after the government decides whether to appeal Abang Iskandar’s ruling.

(Asia Sentinel maintains a copy-sharing agreement with Malaysiakini.)