Malaysian blogger charged with criminal defamation

New York, July 23, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists strongly condemns the recentarrest and criminal defamation charges filed by the Malaysian government against prominent blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin, editor and founder of the Malaysia Today news Web site. 

Raja Petra was arrested and charged on July 17 at police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur and later released on bail, according to local news reports. The three separate defamation charges brought by the attorney general’s office stem from comments he made in a signed document he submitted mid-June to the high court regarding the murder trial of a Mongolian woman killed in 2006. The sworn statement implicated three prominent individuals connected with Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Najib Abdul Razak, including his wife and two military officials, in the murder. Raja Petra published the statement on his Web site and it was widely circulated online.

“CPJ is concerned that the criminal defamation charges against Raja Petra Kamarudin are intended to more widely suppress his outspoken criticism of prominent figures,” said Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator. “Jail sentences levied against commentators for engaging in public debate amount to censorship and threaten democratic society.”

In an interview with CPJ, Raja Petra insisted on his innocence and said he had merely raised issues that the prosecution failed to address in court. “Clearly this is political persecution and has nothing to do with the law,” he told CPJ. The popular blogger had reported frequently and critically for Malaysia Today on the controversial murder trial, which the government-influenced mainstream media has shied away from reporting.

He faces up to six years in prison, two years for each charge, if convicted in a trial scheduled to start on August 15. He is already awaiting an October trial on a separate sedition charge for writing about the same murder case.

The military officials, married couple Lieutenant Colonel Abdul Aziz Buyong and Lieutenant Colonel Norhayati Hassan, are also each seeking 1 million Malaysian ringgit (US$309,000) in damages and an injunction against Raja Petra and Malaysia Today from reporting further on the allegations, according to local media reports.

Malaysia Today is one of the leading news Web sites in Malaysia’s vibrant and growing blogosphere, which has provided unprecedented space for critical news and views seldom reported in the government-influenced mainstream media. Raja Petra told CPJ that Malaysia Today now receives over 1.5 million unique readers per day, a larger readership than established pro-government newspapers.

On May 6, Raja Petra was charged under Malaysia’s draconian Sedition Act and imprisoned for three days over his critical postings about the same murder trial. He refused to post bail after his arrest and was only released after he came under threat by two imprisoned police officials implicated in the murder trial, who were placed in his same cell at the Sungai Buloh jail in Kuala Lumpur, he told CPJ.  

That trial will start on October 6. If convicted, he faces a possible 5,000 1 million Malaysian ringgit (US$1,544) fine and three years in prison.