UN, US Call for Answers on Malaysian Press Blockages

Both the United States and the United Nations have demanded answers from Malaysia on why the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission has cracked down on critical publications, particularly the Sarawak Report and the domestic news site Malaysian Insider.

US State Department spokesman John Kirby, in a statement issued in Washington, said the US is “very concerned by the Government of Malaysia’s recent actions to restrict access to domestic and international reporting on Malaysian current affairs.”

As Asia Sentinel reported on Feb. 29, the government has raised its efforts to unprecedented levels in its attempts to insulate the country’s 30 million residents from critical independent reporting, particularly the rural Malays who make up the bulk of loyalty to the United Malays National Organization, the country’s biggest political party.

In recent weeks, as international pressure has grown on the prime minister and the reports of massive corruption continue to rise, the communications commission has blocked Sarawak Report, Asia Sentinel and the blogging platform Medium. On Feb. 27, it blocked Malaysian Insider after the news site printed an exclusive story saying the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission had amassed enough evidence to file criminal charges against Najib for his part in the 1MDB scandal as well as a mysterious US$681 million contribution to his personal account in AmBank in 2013. Other critical blogs including Outsyed the Box, affiliated with embattled former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, also have been blocked.

Najib is being pursued by law enforcement agencies in five countries over a wide-ranging series of scandals. He has either denied wrongdoing outright, threatened to sue news outlets or simply ignored the stories, backed up by a hefty flock of cadres who depend on personal bribes to insulate him from being dismissed.

“The government’s Feb. 25 decision to block online news portal The Malaysian Insider (TMI) is only the latest in a series of similar efforts against media organizations,” Kirby said during a press conference on North Korea.

The United States is in a sensitive position with Malaysia. It depends on Kuala Lumpur as a strategic ally on the borders of the South China Sea as China continues to claim almost the entire sea as its personal lake. President Barack Obama also has found a strong ally in Najib in his push to create the omnibus Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, the world’s biggest trade bloc. The Dewan Rakyat, or lower house of parliament, ratified the agreement on Jan. 27, lessening the need for Obama to tiptoe around Najib, as he has for months as the web of scandals continues to ensnare the prime minister.

According to Reuters, Kirby also said the US is troubled that the government has failed to provide due process to targeted media groups before blocking access and has begun criminal investigations of reporters, editors and publishers.

“Of equal concern, many Malaysian social media users face charges for postings critical of the government and national leaders,” he added, saying Malaysian officials have spoken about legal amendments “that would further restrict online space.”

He said the United States hoped “to expand our cooperation” with Malaysia on shared challenges, adding “in that context, we urge the Government of Malaysia to ensure that all its laws, existing and future, fully respect freedom of expression, including the free flow of ideas on the Internet.”

Despite the American rebuke, Kirby said the U.S. wanted to maintain its relationship with Malaysia.

Also on March 2, the United Nations Human Rights Commission issued a report on Malaysia that contained a letter, dated Aug. 15 from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, “we would like to bring to the attention of your Excellency’s Government information saying the office has received concerning alleged violations of freedom of expression in Malaysia, including the blocking of the website “Sarawak Report” and harassment of its journalists, as well as the suspension of two other news outlets, and arrest of peaceful protestors.”

The letter noted that on Aug. 4 last year, authorities issued an arrest warrant for Clare Rewcastle-Brown, Sarawak Report’s founder and editor for “activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy” and of “forging false documents” and obtaining material through “criminal leakages.”

The letter also called attention to the suspension of publishing licenses of the Edge Financial Daily and the Edge Weekly as being “prejudicial or likely to be prejudicial to public order, security or likely to alarm public opinion or is likely to be prejudicial to public and national interest.”

The letter also warned that crackdown is reportedly not limited to independent media, but has extended to those seeking to exercise their right to freedom of peaceful assembly, with activists were arrested for organizing a peaceful protest in Kuala Lumpur. These arrests were reportedly made preemptively to discourage others from attending the meeting.

“The recent attack on independent voices in Malaysia has reportedly taken place against the backdrop of a sharp increase in criminal investigations and charges brought against political opponents, lawyers, academics, human rights defenders and artists under the Sedition Act of 1948. This Act criminalizes any expression of “seditious words” or “tendenc[ies]” that incite hatred or disapproval of the government or question any right, privilege, or sovereignty prerogative stated in the Malaysian Constitution.

The office said it is expressing “serious concern that the apparent crackdown on independent voices in the media, including the blocking of access to material on the Internet, impedes the legitimate right of citizens to access information, and their ability to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas.”

It called on the government to protect dissenting voices and independent media outlets in order to report on matters of national concern and whistleblowers should not face criminal penalties for disseminating information in the public interest. The intimidation of journalists and dissenting voices places individuals under physical threat and also has a chilling effect on free speech and can lead to other human rights violations.

The Special Rapporteur also demanded a response on why the legal charges were filed against Rewcastle Brown and how these measures are compatible with international human rights norms and standards governing freedom of opinion and expression. It asked that the government provide information on what steps have been taken to ensure that speech is granted all the protections afforded under international human rights law, in addition to any steps taken by Malaysia to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

There is no indication that Malaysia has answered the letter.