By: Our Correspondent

The Malaysian government, having gone after social media platforms and a long list of other social critics, is now turning its attention to Malaysiakini, the most influential of the country’s independent news portals, and increasing its detention of social activists.

Amnesty International and Article 19, two international rights organizations, have condemned the government’s decision to press charges against Premesh Chandran, the chief executive officer, and Steven Gan, the editor of Malaysiakini. The charge relates to a press conference in July of 2016 in which a critic was filmed taking on Attorney General Mohamad Apandi Ali for clearing Prime Minister Najib Razak of corruption charges.

The detentions and charges take place in a darkening political mood in the country among the political opposition, journalists and others critical of the regime headed by Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has managed to continue his rule for months despite deep concerns over his integrity.

As “Public Official 1” Najib faces investigation by the US Justice Department’s kleptocracy unit for having purchased, through surrogates, hundreds of millions of dollars of US property with money stolen from the state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd investment fund. The fund is believed to have lost as much as US$11 billion through theft and mismanagement. At least US$1 billion and as much as US$2 billion appears to have ended up in the prime minister’s bank accounts.

The gloom has been added to by the fact that shortly after the US election President Donald Trump called Najib in the middle of the night to wish him well and to invite him to Washington.  Since that time, Trump has abruptly fired Preet Bharara, the crusading United States Attorney in New York and dismissed all of the other regional US attorneys appointed by his predecessor, Barack Obama. While the US attorney position is a political one and the real investigations are carried out by Justice Department professionals, Washington is in such disarray because of missteps by the Trump administration that many have concerns that probes such as that being carried out against Najib and his associates and relatives will be lost in the woodwork.

Domestically, Najib appears impossible to dislodge. He continues to have the full backing of the United Malays National Organization, the country’s biggest ethnic political party, and is expected to call an early election later this year to solidify his position for another five years. The opposition remains fragmented and squabbling, with its leader, Anwar Ibrahim, in jail on what are considered to be trumped-up charges of sexual perversion.

Against that backdrop, Amnesty international charged that, starting May 15, authorities notified activists from the Bersih campaign reform organization that they were being investigated for failure to provide police with a 10-day notice to hold a candlelight vigil for human rights defender Maria Chin Abdullah. Three more activists were summoned by police for making statements “conducive to public mischief” on May 24 and continue to be held.

“Amnesty International is alarmed that the authorities are increasingly responding to activities that aim to express dissent and protest against injustice with baseless police investigations,” the rights organization said in a prepared statement. “These recent actions by the police highlight an escalating pattern of misusing the criminal justice system to target and harass political activists and human rights defenders that Amnesty International has documented over the last few years. These actions have further restricted public debate in Malaysia and reduced the space in which civil society operates.”

Malaysiakini remains the biggest and most credible opposition voice, with 5 million unique visitors per month in a political milieu in which the next election campaign is likely to be fought out to a large extent in social media.  The 18-year-old news portal has been repeatedly raided and harassed by authorities.

The current charges against Gan and Chandran stem from a July 26, 2016 press conference in which a former UMNO official, Khairuddin Abu Hassan, called for Apandi Ali’s resignation for clearing Najib of corruption allegations linked to 1MDB after Najib had suddenly fired Apandi Ali’s predecessor, Abdul Ghani Patel, who was rumored about to charge the premier with corruption.

Malaysiakini carried film of Khairuddin’s charges on its streaming video unit KiniTV Sdn Bhd. Gan was charged under  the Communications and Multimedia Act last Novemer. Chandran was charged on May 15 of this year.

Authorities asked Malaysiakini to remove the footage last year but the news portal refused to do so.

“The attorney general is just kind of like wanting to take up action against us,” Chandran said in a telephone conversation from London, where he is on sabbatical. “But it gives us a good opportunity to fight the charges on constitutional grounds.”

The charges follow recent claims by Najib ”that freedom of expression and press freedom are ‘thriving’ in Malaysia,” said David Diaz-Jogeix, Director of Programs at ARTICLE 19, a London-based human rights organization with a chapter in Malaysia. “These charges underscore why the vague and sweeping Communications and Multimedia Act needs urgent reform. The increasing use of this law to target independent media and any online criticism of the government is seriously concerning, and also a clear violation of international human rights law on freedom of expression.”

Since 2015, the Malaysian government “has arrested, investigated and charged media personnel, whistleblowers, opposition politicians, artists, students, civil society and social media users for voicing their concerns over the 1MDB scandal,” Article 19 said in a prepared statement, pointing out that the government has also made wide use of the Sedition Act, the Official Secrets Act, the Penal Code and the Security Offenses and Special Measures Act in the attempt to suppress dissent.

It called on the government to immediately drop the charges against Chandran, Gan and KiniTV and to enact comprehensive reforms to the communications act and other laws used to restrict criticism of the government.

That is highly unlikely. With elections looming sometime over the next year, most observers in Malaysia expect the government to crack down harder as the polls approach.