On March 14, The Malaysian Insider abruptly closed its editorial operations less than a month after the state media regulator, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, blocked local access to its news site.
The Edge Media Group, owner of The Malaysian Insider, said in a statement that despite the site’s “courageous news reporting” it “did not receive enough commercial support to keep it going.” In a statement posted on The Malaysian Insider website, editor-in-chief Jahabar Sadiq confirmed the site was closed for commercial reasons.
The closure of the English language portal comes amid a government clampdown on independent media, particularly outlets that have critically covered the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) financial scandal that has engulfed Prime Minister Najib Razak’s administration. In recent months, CPJ has documented how authorities have censored, harassed and threatened individual journalists and media outlets in retaliation for their critical coverage.
In an email interview, Sadiq spoke about the government pressure his now-shuttered site experienced and the broad deterioration in press freedom in Malaysia.
CPJ: Last month, The Malaysian Insider’s website was blocked by the state’s media regulator. What article did authorities cite to justify the censorship and why did they consider it sensitive?
Sadiq: Until today there is no official explanation by way of a letter to The Malaysian Insider as to the reasons for the block. All we have is a minister saying we were blocked for an article that was confusing the people of Malaysia and a foreign ministry statement saying that the article was a threat to national peace and harmony.
The news related to an unidentified panel member in the local anti-graft authority saying they had prima facie evidence to back criminal charges against the prime minister over a huge sum of money found in his private bank accounts. The attorney-general had earlier said there was insufficient evidence for a charge.[EDITOR’S NOTE: Najib has consistently denied any wrongdoing.]
CPJ: Before the commission’s censorship order, did The Malaysian Insider face any official harassment, warnings or threats over its critical news coverage, including of the 1MDB scandal?
Sadiq: We faced investigations for another case last year, but not related to this. However, the Internet regulator issued a general warning to all news portals last July over news coverage, specifically the 1MDB scandal, and the need to avoid using “unverified” news from other sites. There has always been unofficial harassment and threats by supporters and activists linked to the government.
CPJ: How did the government’s blockage of your news site impact your readership? Were readers able to work around the block or was your site, in effect, blacked out?
Sadiq: Our news site saw traffic decline up to 30 percent after the block. Most readers were able to work around the block and traffic remained ahead of other news portals, but eventually it affected our earnings more as advertisers pulled out. In a sense, that loss of revenue led to a permanent blackout.