Attacks on the Press in 2008: Malaysia

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s government maintained leverage over print media through a renewable licensing system that enabled authorities to suspend or revoke publications when coverage was deemed controversial. Officials charged journalists under national security laws such as the Internal Security Act and Sedition Act, which carried significant prison penalties. These threats of imprisonment and license revocation have long engendered a culture of self-censorship in the traditional media, but the government expanded its legal attacks in 2008 to encompass the thriving online community.

Amid growing political tensions, the September arrest and imprisonment of prominent political blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin signaled this new crackdown on press freedom. Ten police officers raided his residence, confiscated materials, and detained him under the Internal Security Act for articles posted on his Malaysia Today Web site. Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar used his powers under the act to impose without due process a two-year jail sentence on grounds that Raja Petra’s writings had “ridiculed Islam” and posed a threat to national security. A High Court justice overturned the sentence within weeks, ruling that the home minister had acted beyond his authority. Raja Petra continued to face charges in late year related to his blogging.

The government’s actions against Raja Petra were the central press freedom story of 2008, sending a shudder through the country’s lively blogging community and the rest of the news media. On the day of Raja Petra’s arrest, Sin Chew Daily newspaper reporter Tan Hoon Cheng and an opposition politician were also arrested under the Security Act. They were soon released. The government also threatened to suspend three local newspapers—Sin Chew Daily, The Sun, and Suara Keadilan—for their reporting on politically sensitive issues.

The crackdown coincided with a spike in political tensions, driven by an opposition bid to topple Abdullah’s government. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim frequently criticized the government’s media policies and promised to allow more press freedom if he formed a new, reformist government.

On January 26, Malaysiakini correspondent Syed Jaymal was arrested on charges of obstructing police while covering street demonstrations against rising food costs in the capital, Kuala Lumpur. K. Kabilan, the Web site’s editor, told CPJ that Jaymal had identified himself as a journalist to police officials when he requested information about protesters who had been detained. Jaymal alleged that he was abused while in police custody for two days. The report raised concern about the government’s attitude toward journalists who pushed the boundaries of acceptable reporting.

Home Minister Syed Hamid refused to renew the publishing permit of the Tamil-language daily Makkal Osai on April 16 after the paper gave significant coverage to opposition parties in the run-up to the March general election. Days later, he reversed the decision and indicated that his ministry would consider abolishing the renewable licensing system with the aim of promoting press freedom. CPJ welcomed the proposed reforms in a letter to the minister, but there was no immediate legislative or administrative follow-up.

Print publications have traditionally taken few risks because of this licensing system. News-driven blogs, which take hard aim at the government and individual politicians, have provided sharp counterpoint to print media and state-led television news. “We take risks no one else takes,” Raja Petra noted in an interview with CPJ.

That is because Internet writers have operated under far more liberal conditions—at least until 2008. A government policy not to censor the Internet, first adopted in 1996 to lure foreign investment to a government-devised Multimedia Super Corridor project, provided a venue for critical reporting and commentary.

As a result, some social-political bloggers boasted regular readerships larger than those of the mainstream press. A group of bloggers, including several former journalists, established the National Bloggers Alliance to provide support and legal assistance to colleagues who faced official harassment. The alliance’s president, Ahirudin Attan, founder of the popular Rocky’s Bru blog, faced defamation charges for blog postings critical of the state-influenced media.

Throughout, the government claimed to uphold press freedom for online writers and bloggers. Information Minister Ahmad Shabery Cheek wrote in an August 19 e-mail interview with CPJ that “the government encouraged the growth of online journalism” and had invested some 3 billion ringgit (US$860,000) to develop infrastructure and support for information technology.

“The thriving of blogs and online news comes with the government’s policy of no censorship of the Internet and, if you were to look, Malaysia does not have any specific laws that control or curb bloggers and online news,” the minister said. “What we stress is accountability for what one writes. No bloggers or online news portals or even the traditional mainstream media are above the law.”

Other officials, including Prime Minister Abdullah, frequently took issue with bloggers’ coverage and commentary, complaining that they misrepresented facts and that particular postings threatened social stability. By September, it became clear that the government had moved away from its commitment to an open Internet through its ramped-up harassment of bloggers, most prominently Raja Petra.

His September arrest marked the culmination of a campaign of official harassment. On May 6, Raja Petra was detained and charged under the Sedition Act for a report he posted linking Deputy Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak to the bombing murder of a Mongolian interpreter with whom he allegedly had an affair. Najib has consistently denied the charges.

Raja Petra was arrested again on July 17 when the attorney general’s office brought three counts of criminal defamation carrying a possible six-year prison term. The charges stemmed from a statement the blogger made accusing Najib’s wife and two military officials in the same murder case. On August 15, a court ordered him to reveal his sources and remove articles he had posted on Malaysia Today that accused lawyer Muhammad Shafee Abdullah of conspiring with police to file politically motivated sodomy charges against opposition leader Anwar. He declined to do so. Muhammad denied the allegations, according to news reports.

Later that month, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission ordered all 21 of the country’s Internet service providers to block local access to Malaysia Today. The order coincided exactly with Raja Petra’s plans to post real-time results of a special election, which Anwar won in a landslide. Raja Petra told CPJ he was able to keep Malaysia Today going through a mirror site and the creation of Internet addresses hosted in three different countries outside Malaysia.

ASIA: Regional Analysis
Media Freedom Stalls as China Sets the Course

ASIA: Country Summaries

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