Amid arrests and threats, Malaysia cracks down on media

New York, September 12, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists strongly condemns the arrests today of Raja Petra Kamarudin, founder and editor of the influential Malaysia Today Web site and blog, and Sin Chew Daily reporter Tan Hoon Cheng. Three newspapers, including Sin Chew Daily, have also been officially threatened with suspension today, according to news reports.  

A blogger and human rights lawyer, Haris Ibrahim, was also reportedly arrested after posting about the two arrests on his Web site, The People’s Parliament, according to Gayathry Venkiteswaran of the country’s Centre for Independent Journalism. She told CPJ by telephone that her organization learned of his arrest while reaching out to outspoken bloggers who might be targeted during an apparent crackdown on dissent. CPJ was not able to independently confirm his detention.

Malaysia’s Home Ministry also sent Sin Chew Daily a letter threatening suspension today after the daily reported that an official in the prime minister’s political party described ethnic Chinese Malaysians as power-hungry immigrants, according to Reuters. Tan Hoon Cheng was the journalist who broke that story, according to a report on Malaysia Today. The Sun and Suara Keadilan newspapers received similar letters today, according to Reuters and Agence France-Press.

“The Malaysian government has taken its repression of dissenting voices to a new level today,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We call on the Malaysian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Raja Petra Kamarudin and Tan Hoon Cheng. Malaysian newspapers should also be free to publish without threat of suspension.”

On Friday, a group of 10 police officials entered Raja Petra’s home at 1 p.m. and arrested him under section 73/1 of the Internal Security Act. The detention order said he would be jailed for 60 days while authorities investigate articles he published that “condemned national leaders, leading to confusion among the people, and condemned the Islam religion,” according to his wife, Marina Lee Abdullah, who was present during the arrest and later spoke with CPJ by telephone. It wasn’t clear exactly which articles the authorities considered offensive, she said. Deputy Superintendent of Police Ibrahim Jaafar, who was named on Raja Petra’s detention order, could not be reached by CPJ on Friday. 

The Web site of the Chinese-language Sin Chew Daily reported that police arrested journalist Tan Hoon Cheng in her Penang home at around 9 p.m., also under the Internal Security Act. Tan called the paper to say police had arrived at her home. Her colleagues were unable to reach her after that, the report said.

The Internal Security Act allows for detention without trial for suspects considered to be a threat to national security or public order. By Malaysian law, the Home Ministry may extend the detention orders indefinitely after the initial 60-day period is served. A popular opposition politician was also arrested under the act today, according to news reports.

Reuters said English-language daily The Sun was accused of “manipulating…numerous sensitive issues” in a letter today from the Home Ministry. A staff member at opposition party newspaper Suara Keadilan told the news agency they believed they were being punished for reporting that a police chief was paralyzed after surgery. The government maintains leverage over Malaysian newspapers by granting permission them to publish annually in the form of permits that can be suspended or revoked in case of controversial coverage.  

The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, the state agency charged with oversight of the communications industry, ordered Internet service providers to try to block Malaysia Today for articles it considered seditious and inciting racial hatred two weeks ago, according to Raja Petra. Marina told CPJ that she and others plan to update Malaysia Today, now hosted on international mirror sites, while Raja Petra is held in detention. He was detained under the Sedition Act in May and has come under a court order to reveal his sources for a story published on the site.