Government blocks international newsmagazines

New York, March 7, 2001 — The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is troubled by the Malaysian government’s decision to block distribution of the international newsmagazines Asiaweek and the Far Eastern Economic Review, both published weekly from Hong Kong.

“The Malaysian government has a history of using bureaucratic restrictions to control the media,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “We are watching very closely to see whether this situation proves to be part of a broader effort to censor the foreign press.”

Foreign publications are subject to review by the Control of Publications and Film Division, a department overseen by the Home Ministry.

The March 2 edition of Asiaweek contained an article about radical Islam in Asia that mentioned Malaysian funding networks for militant movements. Slated for distribution on February 24, the issue has yet to secure official clearance.

Meanwhile, Malaysian authorities delayed distribution of the Far Eastern Economic Review‘s March 1 issue by one week. The magazine, which contained an article about divisions within the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, went on sale on March 3, by which time the following week’s edition was ready for distribution.

Both Asiaweek and the Review remained accessible online.

Mahathir, who was named one of CPJ’s Top 10 Enemies of the Press in 1999 and 2000, has long had a testy relationship with the foreign media. Tensions came to a head recently when Asiaweek published a series of articles spotlighting various problems facing Malaysia. The January 26 issue featured a photograph that Mahathir claimed was deliberately chosen to make him look like an “idiot.”

On February 4, just three days after the prime minister’s public rebuke of Asiaweek, the government announced that the Information Ministry and the Foreign Ministry would set up a joint committee to deal with “inaccurate reports about Malaysia appearing in the foreign media,” according to the national news agency Bernama.

Most Malaysian media are controlled by allies of the ruling coalition, and the few independent and pro-opposition news organizations that remain face onerous licensing restrictions.

The prime minister has also lashed out at the online newspaper Malaysiakini, a well-regarded source of independent news. For the past several weeks, the pro-government mainstream media have stoked a controversy over Malaysiakini’s funding sources, accusing the Internet publication of receiving money from the American financier George Soros, whom Mahathir blames for triggering the Asian economic crisis.

On March 4, the prime minister claimed that people “who love Malaysia would not support Malaysiakini,” according to Bernama, and suggested the newspaper staff had “behave[d] like traitors, asking foreigners to harm their own country.” Though Malaysiakini furnished a detailed account of its records to prove that it has not accepted any funding from Soros, staff reporters remain barred from covering government functions.