Press Freedom In Malaysia, Not For The Fainthearted

Malaysia (132) has suddenly found itself in the embarrassing position of being sandwiched between Nigeria (131) and Chad (133) as the government’s crackdowns on journalists, bloggers and activists take their toll in the country’s international press freedom ranking.

The 2008 World Press Freedom Index, released last Wednesday by Reporters Sans Frontiéres, downgraded the Southeast Asian nation from 124th of 173 countries — already hardly a vote of confidence — after "widespread social and political demonstrations (in Malaysia) prompted the authorities to harden their line towards the press," the press watchdog organization said.

"The internal security ministry, the bête noire of editorial offices, imposed censorship on the most sensitive issues. A journalist was physically assaulted for investigating leaders of an Indian community party, close to the government," the report noted.

The country’s major media, all of which is owned by component political parties of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, remains under the tight control of the government. Repeated surveys of political news stories have found them to be solidly biased in favor of the government. However, a flock of angry and indefatigable bloggers has surfaced to shred government credibility across a wide range of issues. After disastrous results in the March 8 election cost the ruling national coalition its two-thirds majority in the parliament for the first time since Malaysia became an independent country, members of the ruling coalition acknowledged the impact of the bloggers and ordered all top politicians to start their own blogs.

At the same time, the government has intensified its crackdowns on dissent, wielding the Internal Security Act, a colonial-era law to quell the communist insurgency in the 1940s and 1950s that allows detention without trial, to arrest two journalists, an opposition federal lawmaker, Teresa Kok of the Democratic Action Party, and an activist.

The first journalist from the top Chinese-language daily, Sin Chew, was held ostensibly for her own safety, according to the Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar, but was released shortly after her arrest. Kok was arrested for allegedly threatening Islam, the official religion in the Muslim-majority country, but was also released.

The third detainee, Raja Petra Kamarudin and the most indefatigable of the bloggers, remains in jail. He was sentenced to two years in prison under the Internal Security Act for articles that allegedly challenged or "insulted" Islam. The 58-year-old editor of the popular no-holds-barred political news site and a minor member of the Selangor royalty forecast his fate in an interview to the British Broadcasting Corporation a few weeks before his arrest.

Raja Petra is also on trial for multiple charges of sedition and criminal defamation on articles that he wrote on the gruesome 2006 murder of a 28-year-old Altantuya Shaariibuu, a Mongolian translator which sought to implicate Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife, Rosmah Mansor. Najib and Rosmah have vehemently denied the allegations but Najib's close advisor and friend, Abdul Razak Baginda, and two bodyguards under Najib's jurisdiction are on trial for the murder.

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Although government regulators ordered Malaysia Today blocked in August, Raja Petra published the blog on a mirror site and creating new Internet addresses in foreign countries. After he was jailed, his wife and some colleagues have continued to publish, although daily numbers have suffered badly.

In a separate case, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists protested the arrest of of blogger Abdul Rashid Abu Bakar, founder of the blog Penarik Beca, or Rickshaw Peddler, who was taken into custody on August 7 by police for publishing a digitally altered image of the national police insignia. In that image, the CPJ reported, the tiger in the symbol was replaced with a dog and the words “Allah” and “Mohammad” on the symbol were replaced with “C4,” the explosive that was used in Altantuya’s murder.

More recently, Cheng Lee Whee, an activist with The People's Voice of Malaysia (SUARAM), was detained under the ISA for allegedly disseminating a false report. She posted a comment on the police web portal alleging that the police had used excessive force in evicting squatters in Johor Bahru, the capital of the southern state of Johor bordering Singapore.

Even harmless antics like putting an image of the national flag upside down on your blog can land you in trouble. The prolific blogger Syed Azidi Syed Aziz of kickdefella.wordpress.com was arrested and is now out on bail awaiting a possible sedition charge. He remains defiant and argues that he meant no disrespect but the gesture to express his view that the nation is in distress.

"Today I knew they are looking for another Malaysian blogger who is still flying the flag up-side down,” he wrote. “I too knew those two persons are just victims of Prime Minister Abdullah’s (Badawi) political survivor. I pray for them to be strong. This is just the beginning for us, but rest assured that it is the end for Abdullah!"

The strained atmosphere in wake of the press crackdown showed up Tuesday when Wong Choon Mei, an editor of the online news portal Malaysiakini, resigned over an erroneous report describing a manifesto supposedly issued by Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak in his bid for the UMNO presidency. The online news portal said Wong uploaded the story before a second editor vetted it, the standard procedure. Wong, veteran journalist, told Malaysiakini, "It is my fault and I stand ready to take full responsibility and resign.”

The government and Badawi's most vitriolic critic, however, is relatively unscathed and left to lob his attacks from his blog, chedet.com. The former premier, Mahathir Mohamad, is arguably the country's most successful blogger, hitting more than a million unique viewers in just one month. But being a powerful retired warlord of the United Malays National Organisation -- the largest ethnic party, which dominates the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional -- has it perks. He appears to be exempted from the ISA despite making serious allegations from corruption in the current run-up to party elections in March and Badawi's son's business interests.

On the other side fence, Theresa Kok, a three-term lawmaker, has sued Utusan, the leading government-controlled Malay-language daily, over an article that claims she was trying to ban the azan, the Muslim call to prayer, and the author of a short story titled “The New Politics Of The Honorable J (Politik Baru YB J in Malay)” which was also published in the paper. She alleges that the politician in the short story who was portrayed as anti-Malay and anti-Islam is a reference to her. The story ends with the character being assassinated, which Kok claims is tantamount to inciting hatred towards her. The author has denied the story is about Kok and says the characters represent "ideas,"