Attacks on the Press 1999: Malaysia

At the heart of Malaysia’s authoritarian reputation is its Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984, which requires all publications to obtain licenses that can be revoked at will by the Minister for Home Affairs. The minister’s decisions are final, and there is no judicial review.

A holdover from British rule, when a communist insurgency threatened what was then called Malaya and led to “emergency” decrees, the restrictions are now used by the dominant United Malay National Organization(UMNO) of Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad to suppress dissenting views. For Malaysian readers of the mainstream press, the result is a daily diet of self-censored news. UMNO and its allies in the ruling Barisan National coalition directly own or control all major newspapers, radio and television stations, making it virtually impossible for alternative voices to reach the public.

On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, 581 journalists presented an unprecedented petition to Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, calling for an end to publishing restrictions. “I shall read it. I will let you know,” Abdullah told the group. It was the last they heard from him on the matter.

Also on World Press Freedom Day, CPJ announced it was putting Prime Minister Mahathir on its list of the 10 Worst Enemies of the Press in 1999. CPJ cited Mahathir’s stranglehold on the mainstream media, as well as the Mahathir government’s efforts to stifle the handful of opposition organs that are allowed to publish.

Following the November 29 general election, in which the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) scored the only significant gains against the ruling coalition, the government banned newsstand sales of Harakah, the PAS party newspaper. It then threatened to close the paper permanently if it failed to comply with the order. (Under the terms of its license, Harakah can be sold only to PAS party members.) After the September 1998 arrest and prosecution of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, which Harakah covered in detail, the biweekly’s circulation quadrupled, to over 350,000.

Four other small, opposition-oriented publications were similarly threatened by the government following the November elections, and Aliran, a critical magazine published by a non-governmental organization, has had difficulty finding a printer.

The Malaysian judiciary also acted against the press in 1999, periodically restricting coverage of the trials of Anwar Ibrahim. In April, Anwar was convicted of corruption and sentenced to six years in jail. Following that case, his trial on sodomy charges began; it is expected to conclude sometime in 2000.

In September, Canadian journalist Murray Hiebert’s two-year battle to avoid jail ended when the Far Eastern Economic Review correspondent was sentenced to six weeks in prison (he served four weeks) for a story he wrote that was critical of the Malaysian judicial process. Malaysia thus became the first Commonwealth country in 50 years to jail a reporter for contempt, sparking international condemnation. “Putting a journalist in jail for doing his job undermines the press freedoms that play such a critical role in building a democratic society,” U.S. President Bill Clinton said in a statement issued at a meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders in Auckland shortly after Hiebert was jailed.

Mahathir curtly dismissed U.S. concerns over the incident. “If he [Clinton] were to send troops here to release Hiebert, then I will call that interference. He hasn’t done that. I think he is entitled to his opinion and I to mine,” Mahathir told the Malaysian daily, The Sun.

In November, a courageous band of local journalists launched Malaysia’s first online daily newspaper. Malaysiakini is intended to be an alternative news source, able to skirt government press licensing laws because it is only published on the Internet. The site is based in Kuala Lumpur, and runs bylined articles that are generally far more aggressive than the timid political coverage in the mainstream press. By the end of the year, Malaysiakini was claiming 75,000 hits a day.

In order to attract foreign investment in the local information technology industry, Malaysia specifically exempts the Internet from licensing. At year’s end, the government had made no move to crack down on the Internet paper.

September 11
Murray Hiebert, Far Eastern Economic Review IMPRISONED

A three-judge panel of Malaysia’s Court of Appeal upheld an earlier high court conviction and ordered Hiebert, Malaysia correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, to be jailed for six weeks for contempt of court.

Shortly after the hearing, police escorted Hiebert to Sungai Buloh prison, where he began serving the sentence while his lawyers prepared another appeal.

The Shah Alam High Court originally sentenced Hiebert to three months in prison on September 4, 1997. The contempt charge stemmed from a January 23, 1997, article that Hiebert wrote for the Far Eastern Economic Review, a Hong Kong-based, English-language weekly published by Dow Jones & Company. The article, entitled “See You in Court,” focused on the increasingly litigious nature of Malaysian society.

As one example, Hiebert cited a case involving the son of a prominent judge, Gopal Sri Ram. The judge’s wife sued the International School of Kuala Lumpur for US$2.4 million after fellow students kicked her 17-year-old son off a debating team for alleged cheating. Hiebert noted in his piece that many were “surprised at the speed with which the case raced through Malaysia’s legal labyrinth.”

The lower court determined that Hiebert’s article had “scandalized the court, was calculated to excite prejudice against the plaintiff, and was designed to exert pressure on the court.”

For the next two years, Hiebert was free on bail, but forbidden to leave Malaysia. On September 13, 1999, CPJ protested the Court of Appeal’s decision to uphold the lower court’s ruling in a letter sent to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. CPJ urged the prime minister to pardon Hiebert and to order a thorough and impartial investigation into his prosecution, to determine whether there had been a miscarriage of justice.

Hiebert was released on October 11, after spending four weeks in prison. It is customary in Malaysia to release prisoners for good behavior after they have served two-thirds of their sentence. Hiebert left Malaysia on October 12 to take up a new posting as the Review‘s Washington, D.C., bureau chief.

On October 20, Malaysia’s highest court ruled that Hiebert could only appeal his conviction if he paid a security deposit of 200,000 ringgits (US$55,000) within two weeks, and personally attended any further court proceedings. Rather than submit to these conditions, Hiebert dropped his appeal.

A statement issued by Dow Jones noted: “We are not aware of any jurisdiction in the Commonwealth that requires an appellant who already has served his sentence to continue to attend court proceedings…. Mr. Hiebert will not return to Malaysia and, therefore, will be unable to meet the unprecedented condition imposed by the court on his ability to challenge the injustice of his conviction and sentence.”

October 19

The opposition magazine Aliran Monthly announced that it had been unable to publish its September 1999 issue on time because it was unable to find a printer.

Aliran Monthly‘s difficulties began in early 1999, when its printing firm of five years abruptly refused to continue printing the magazine. Over the next seven months, four other printers terminated their relationships with Aliran.

At least one printer balked during contract negotiations, citing concerns that the magazine was “too political.” Another told the monthly that he could not take the job for “obvious reasons,” according to Aliran.

CPJ’s sources said that printers were reluctant to handle the magazine due to government intimidation and the threat of losing their publishing permits, which must be renewed annually under Malaysia’s restrictive Printing Press and Publications Act of 1984.

October 28

The Ministry of Home Affairs accused the monthly opposition magazine Tamadun of publishing material that “could cause hatred among the people towards the government,” according to the online publication Malaysiakini.

The ministry claimed that by publishing such articles, Tamadun had “diverted from the scope of its original permit application,” and warned that the magazine risked losing its license to publish.

CPJ protested the Malaysian government’s use of licensing regulations to intimidate Tamadun in a January 10, 2000, letter to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

December 24

In a letter dated December 24, the Ministry of Home Affairs accused Harakah, the newspaper of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), of ignoring the terms of its publishing license by selling to non-party members. The ministry ordered PAS to stop distributing Harakah via public newsstands by January 8.

The home ministry apparently retaliated against Harakah for its critical coverage of the arrest and trial of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim last year. These events broadened Harakah‘s readership considerably and established it as a source of alternative news on the trial and other politically sensitive subjects.

CPJ protested the Malaysian government’s use of licensing regulations to intimidate Harakah in a January 10, 2000, letter to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

December 24

The privately financed, pro-opposition biweekly Detik received a show-cause notice from the Ministry of Home Affairs asking management to state reasons why its publishing permit should not be revoked. Detik allegedly broke the terms of its license by failing to inform the home ministry of its new chief editor’s appointment, not printing a mailing address on its masthead, and transferring its permit to another publishing company without the ministry’s consent.

After Detik‘s license expired in December, the home ministry stated that it would need time to investigate the magazine’s application for license renewal. The delay caused Detik to miss at least three issues.

CPJ protested the Malaysian government’s use of licensing regulations to censor Detik in a January 10, 2000, letter to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

December 24

Wasilah, a new sister publication of the pro-opposition biweekly Detik, received a letter from the Ministry of Home Affairs, warning the magazine that it must abide by the terms of its license and publish under its full name, Al Wasilah. The letter also threatened to withdraw the monthly magazine’s publishing license.

CPJ protested the Malaysian government’s use of licensing regulations to intimidate Wasilah in a January 10, 2000, letter to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.