USING INTERNAL SECURITY LAWS AND THE PRINTING PRESSES and Publications Act of 1984, which requires annual relicensing of all publications, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s deeply entrenched ruling party and its allies maintained a stranglehold on the press.
Virtually all mainstream newspapers in Malaysia are owned or controlled by parties allied with the ruling Barisan National coalition. Alternative publications were curbed or banned last year. Critical journalists were threatened with prosecution. There is no independent radio news, and allies of the prime minister control all television broadcasting.
In March, stung by losses to the opposition Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) in general elections held in late 1999, Mahathir’s government moved against the PAS party newspaper Harakah, reducing its publishing frequency from twice weekly to twice a month. The newspaper had soared in popularity after the controversial 1998 arrest and prosecution of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim on charges of corruption and sodomy.
In January, the government charged Harakah‘s editor and the owner of the press that printed the newspaper with sedition, based on an article published in 1999. The printer pleaded guilty when the trial began in May and was fined US$1000. Harakah‘s editor, Zulkifli Sulong, could face three years in jail if convicted. “The government is trying to silence us,” Zulkifli said.
During the course of the year, three other publications, the magazines Detik and Wasilah and the weekly tabloid Eksklusif, had their publication licenses cancelled or suspended by the Home Ministry, which controls media licensing. None had resumed publishing by year’s end.
Self-censorship remains the most insidious effect of the official attitude towards the press. Malaysian journalists are among the best-paid in the region, and they have a lot to lose by bucking the system. As a result, most journalism is tame, and reporters have no effective organizational voice to fight for greater freedom. The National Union of Journalists, for example, failed to protest any of the closures or other restrictions placed on alternative publications in 2000.
Paradoxically, Mahathir insists that his government tolerates press freedom. “A government which controls the media is a government with no morals,” he said in a September speech to the International Convention on the Role of Media in Non-Aligned Countries. Despite such statements, CPJ named Mahathir to its annual list of the “Ten Worst Enemies of the Press in 2000.” (In other statements during the year, Mahathir said that restrictions on the press were necessary to preserve national harmony and counter what he called “lies” perpetrated by foreign media.)
In an effort to promote itself as an international high-tech hub, Malaysia has allowed Internet sites to go online without licensing. The online news publication Malaysiakini (www.malaysiakini.com), which started publishing in late 1999, saw its traffic rise to over 120,000 readers a day, far surpassing the company’s own projections. Malaysiakini editor Steven Gan was honored by CPJ with its annual International Press Freedom Award in November. In his acceptance speech, Gan noted that Internet sites still face possible prosecution for sedition and libel, penalties that have frequently been used against journalists in Malaysia.
Zulkifli Sulong, Harakah
Chia Lim Thye, Harakah
Police arrested Zulkifli, the editor of Harakah, the biweekly newspaper of the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), and Chia, the owner of the company that prints Harakah and formally holds the newspaper’s publishing license.
Zulkifli and Chia were both charged with sedition for publishing a statement criticizing the government’s handling of the ongoing sodomy trial of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim. The statement, which also circulated over the Internet, appeared in the August 2, 1999, edition of Harakah.
The two men were briefly detained and released on bail.
The arrests followed a warning issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs at the end of December, reminding Harakah that under the terms of its publishing license, the popular biweekly newspaper could not be sold to the general public, but only to PAS members. Harakah‘s circulation had grown fourfold-to a peak of about 375,000 copies-since the arrest of Anwar in September 1998.
Local journalists feared that the arrests of Zulkifli and Chia, coupled with the arrests of two opposition party leaders on unrelated sedition charges that same day, signalled the start of a broad crackdown on independent speech.
CPJ sent a letter to Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad on January 12, noting that journalists should never face imprisonment for what they write or publish. CPJ urged an end to the administration’s campaign of intimidation and harassment against Harakah.
On January 13, Zulkifli and Chia were indicted separately on sedition charges. On January 31, a sessions court judge ruled that their cases should be considered together.
In their joint trial on May 22 before a Kuala Lumpur sessions court judge, Chia surprised observers by pleading guilty, and was fined 4000 ringgit (US$1050). The trial of Zulkifli, who pleaded not guilty, resumed on May 25, and proceeded in fits and starts throughout the remainder of the year. As of press time, the trial is scheduled to resume on March 19, 2001. If convicted, Zulkifli faces up to three years in jail under the provisions of the Sedition Act of 1948.
The Ministry of Home Affairs sharply restricted the publishing frequency of Harakah, the newspaper of the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).
While the Home Ministry granted Harakah‘s annual publishing license, it did so with the proviso that the paper could only publish twice a month. Under the terms of its previous license, which expired on February 28, Harakah had been publishing twice a week.
Malaysia’s onerous Printing Presses and Publications Act gives the government full authority to license and restrict publications.
The action was one of several recent moves against Harakah. In December 1999, the Home Ministry sent a letter to the newspaper warning that it could be shut down if it did not limit its sales to PAS members. Under the terms of its license, Harakah may not be sold at public newsstands.
On January 13, Harakah‘s editor, Zulkifli Sulong, and the paper’s printer, Chia Lim Thye, were indicted on sedition charges stemming from the paper’s publication of a statement that criticized the government’s handling of the sodomy trial of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim.
In a March 2 letter to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, CPJ described the move to limit Harakah‘s circulation as another example of the government’s efforts to curb the opposition press in Malaysia. The letter called for the repeal of the Printing Presses and Publications Act and an end to the government’s campaign of intimidation and harassment against Harakah.
The Home Ministry issued an official notice to Detik, rejecting its application for a publishing license and thereby effectively banning the independent bimonthly . Detik‘s license had expired in December, forcing the magazine to suspend publication and suffer major financial losses while awaiting action on its application for renewal. “We may have criticized the government occasionally but we never intended to break the law,” Detik‘s editor, Ahmad Lutfi Othman, told reporters after the decision.
Under the Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984, all publications in Malaysia must apply annually to renew their publishing licenses annually. The Home Ministry oversees publication permits, and there is no judicial review of its decisions.
The action against Detik, which has a reputation in Malaysia as a politically independent magazine that often criticizes the government, followed the government’s March 1 decision to restrict the publication schedule of the popular opposition party newspaper Harakah from twice weekly to biweekly.
In a March 29 protest letter to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, CPJ noted that his government’s harsh licensing regime and other press controls violate internationally recognized standards of free expression, and urged him to ensure that Detik was allowed to resume publishing immediately.
The Home Ministry declined to grant the news magazine Eksklusif a new publishing permit, accusing the weekly of “imbalanced reporting and non-compliance with publication rules and regulations.” The paper stopped publishing on April 15, the day its previous permit expired.
The Kumpulan Karangkraf company, which publishes Eksklusif, was not notified of the decision until August, according to a CPJ source. The company decided not to publicize the matter for fear that its other 20 publications might suffer as a result.
Eksklusif was an important source of news that might not otherwise have found an outlet in Malaysia’s tightly controlled mainstream media. Its content was mostly political and often quite critical of the government.
According to the Internet news publication Malaysiakini (www.malaysiakini.com), Home Ministry officials had warned the magazine to “improve its coverage” after it published articles sympathetic to ousted deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, who is currently jailed on what appears to be politically motivated charges of sodomy and corruption.
CPJ protested the closure of Eksklusif in a September 7 letter to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
Wasilah, a Malay-language monthly youth magazine edited by opposition politician Ahmad Lutfi Othman, was effectively banned on August 31, when its publication permit expired.
Afterwards, a Home Ministry official told the Internet news publication Malaysiakini that the permit was being “suspended and revoked,” but did not elaborate. Othman did not receive formal notification from the ministry, although he had applied for a new license renewal three months before the previous year’s permit expired.
The Home Ministry controls media licensing under Malaysia’s repressive Printing Presses and Publications Act. There is no judicial review of the ministry’s decisions.
Months earlier, on December 24, 1999, Lutfi had received a letter from the government warning Wasilah to abide by the terms of its license and to publish under its full name, Al-Wasilah. At that time, Lutfi worried that this technicality might be used to ban the magazine.
CPJ sources suspected that the Home Ministry’s failure to grant a license to Wasilah was politically motivated, as Lutfi is a member of the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party. He is also the former editor of Detik, a popular bimonthly magazine that was effectively shut down when its license expired in December 1999.
On September 7, CPJ sent a letter to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, asking him to instruct the Home Ministry to allow Wasilah to resume publishing, and urging repeal of the onerous Printing Presses and Publications Act.
Irene Fernandez, Tenaganita
The trial of Fernandez, director of the Kuala Lumpur-based human rights organization Tenaganita, on the charge of “maliciously publishing false news,” entered its fifth year. Fernandez faces up to three years in prison if convicted; she is currently out on bail.
Hearings were interrupted by numerous delays over the course of the year. On November 10, the trial was adjourned until January 10, 2001.
The charge stems from Tenaganita’s August 1995 publication of a report about the gross maltreatment of migrant workers in Malaysian detention centers. The report, which documented the deaths of 59 inmates at the Semenyih detention center, was produced by journalists at The Sun newspaper, led by 2000 CPJ International Press Freedom Award winner Steven Gan. The Sun’s management spiked the story just hours before it was scheduled to go to press, at which point Gan turned it over to Fernandez.
Fernadez’s trial began in June 1996, making it the longest criminal trial in Malaysia’s history.