Police in Malaysia interrogate popular Internet journalist

New York, July 25, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists expresses its grave concern about today’s police interrogation of popular Internet-based writer Raja Petra Kamarudin, founder of the Malaysia Today news Web site. 

According to Malaysia Today, Raja Petra was summoned to the Dang Wangi Stadium police station in Kuala Lumpur in response to a police complaint filed Monday by Malaysia’s ruling political party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). Raja Petra said in a Malaysia Today posting that he was released after eight hours in custody. 

UMNO information secretary Nasiruddin Jantan told reporters that the Web site had published articles that the government perceived as an insult to Islam and as an attempt to stir racial tensions. Malaysia Today said that it had learned of a second complaint related to a column by Raja Petra that referred to the Prophet Muhammad and hell in the same headline.

After his release, Raja Petra said police questioned him not about the articles he had written but about reader comments posted on his Web site. “The bottom line is, what you post in the comments section may get me sent to jail under the Sedition Act,” the journalist wrote tonight.

Malaysia’s draconian 1948 Sedition Act is notoriously broad and vague in its references to sedition and leaves undefined such subjective terms as “hatred” and “discontent.” Offenses under the act are punishable by three years in prison and fines.

Malaysian Law Minister Nazri Abdul Aziz said on Tuesday that the government was drafting a measure specifying that bloggers and Internet writers are subject to existing laws allowing for detention without trial, including the Internal Security Act, according to the state news agency Bernama.

“We call upon the Malaysian authorities to immediately cease harassment of Internet journalist Raja Petra Kamarudin,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “Any new laws tailored to censor the Internet would represent a significant step backward for press freedom in Malaysia.”

Malaysia’s mainstream media is tightly controlled by the government or political parties in the ruling coalition. Bloggers and online publications, including Malaysia Today, have in recent years provided critical news and views that have challenged the state’s traditional dominance over the media. Some bloggers, such as Jeff Ooi writing on Screenshots, now attract larger readerships than some Malaysian newspapers.

CPJ research reflects some warning signs about the state of press freedom in Malaysia. In a bid to attract foreign investors, former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad promised in a 1996 Bill of Guarantees that the government would not censor cyberspace. Now, critics say that Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s government seems bent on cracking down on Internet writers who post material critical of his government. Last week, Nathaniel Tan, a blogger and political aide to opposition politician Anwar Ibrahim, was detained by police for five days in relation to comments he posted on his Web site linking a deputy minister to corruption.