Prime Minister attacks online critics

New York, January 30, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s calling online critics of his government liars, and his support of a civil libel suit brought against two bloggers.

In an interview with the New Straits Times Sunday edition, Badawi made broad accusations against bloggers, claiming that they frequently spread “lies after lies” about his government.

In separate remarks widely reported in the Malaysian media, the prime minister backed civil defamation lawsuits against two of the country’s most popular political bloggers, Jeff Ooi and Ahiruddin Bin Attan. The suits were recently filed by the pro-government New Straits Times.

“In a country where the legal system has been used to control the traditional media, the Internet has given Malaysians a forum for freer expression,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “The prime minister’s remarks and support for this legal action against bloggers send a message that could well intimidate online writers and stifle the growth of the country’s new media.”

The suits were filed earlier this month by Malaysia’s New Straits Times deputy board chairman Kalimullah Hassan, a former editor, Brendan Pereira, and two others. The complaints are the first ever filed against Malaysian bloggers related to their online writing. Both men have been frequent critics of both the newspaper and Abdullah’s administration.

Abdullah was widely quoted over the weekend referring specifically to the cases, saying: “They cannot hope to cover themselves or hide from the laws. What is freedom without responsibility?”

The case against Ooi and his popular “Screenshots” alleged that Ooi had posted 13 defamatory entries. Ahiruddin is the president of the National Press Club. The plaintiffs cited 48 different postings on his “Rocky’s Bru” blog in their complaint. The first hearing in the case was held on January 25.

Both sites accused former editor Pereira of plagiarism shortly before he announced that he was leaving the paper in October. Pereira and the New Straits Times have denied the blogs’ allegations.

Ahiruddin, Ooi and the New Straits Times have agreed to not publish any articles, comments or posts while the cases are being heard. Ahiruddin voluntarily removed 400 reader comments specifically about the lawsuit from his website, but has left in tact the allegedly defamatory postings. The next hearing in Ooi’s case will be on March 6. Ahirudin’s case will begin February 22.

Malaysia’s mainstream media is tightly controlled by the government, which relies on a system of one-year, renewable media licenses as a way to curb critical news coverage. Internet-based publications and blogs are partly protected from state censorship by the Communications and Multimedia Act and have helped fill Malaysia’s news gap. Broad provisions in the law, however, prohibit the online publication of “defamatory or false information.”