CPJ asks Malaysia PM for reforms on press freedom

May 14, 2009

His Excellency Najib Razak
Prime Minister of Malaysia
Office of the Prime Minister
Federal Government Administrative Centre
, Malaysia 62502

Via facsimile: 011-603-8888-3444

Dear Prime Minister Najib,

The Committee to Protect Journalists is writing to express its longstanding concerns about Malaysia’s restricted media environment and to urge you to undertake reforms that allow for greater press freedom, both for the mainstream and fast emerging online news media.

CPJ welcomed your decision, announced during your first national address as prime minister on April 3, to remove the three-month ban imposed in March on two widely read opposition-aligned newspapers, Harakah and Suara Keadilan. Your April 6 speech to the Malaysian Press Institute, in which you acknowledged and promoted the media’s role in articulating diverse political views and building democracy, also sent a positive signal of reform. 

We were especially heartened to learn of your publicly stated intention to launch a comprehensive review of the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA), which has been used by previous governments to harass and sometimes imprison journalists and broadly suppress freedom of expression in the name of upholding national security.  

At the same time, your government has taken repressive actions that, in our view, represent a clear danger to journalists and their ability to cover important news events. That includes this month’s mass arrest of more than 80 opposition politicians, activists, and others who opposed your government’s attempt to seize control of the state legislative assembly in the northern state of Perak, according to international news reports.

We were troubled to learn that journalists and press freedom advocates were among those arrested and detained, including Wong Chin Huat, a writer, academic and chairman of the Writer’s Alliance for Media Independence, a prominent local press freedom group.

At least two journalists, Law Tech Hao, the editor of Suara Keadilan, and Josh Hong, a political columnist at Malaysiakini, a leading online news service, were arrested on May 6 while covering a candlelight vigil for Wong held in front of a Kuala Lumpur police station, according to the local Centre for Independent Journalism. Both reporters, the organization reported, were released without charge.

The arrest and harassment of Hong, a prominent online commentator, continues a disturbing trend of denying Internet freedom. Outgoing Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s administration, in which you served as deputy prime minister, backtracked on a prior government commitment to maintain an uncensored Internet. In the process, his government cracked down hard on high-profile bloggers, including Malaysia Today founder and prominent blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin. He was jailed last year under the ISA for his critical online writings and now faces additional criminal defamation and sedition charges–all of which carry possible jail terms for guilty convictions.

You have vowed in your public addresses to work toward establishing “One Malaysia,” a call for reform that, as you put it in your April 3 inaugural address, aims to put “people first.” CPJ believes that a meaningful step in that direction would entail comprehensive changes to the many laws and policies that have long been applied to undermine press freedom in your country.

We call on you to rescind the renewable licensing system for print publications, which governments typically employ to pressure editors and journalists to soften and self-censor their news coverage. CPJ also asks that you move to abolish the ISA, Sedition Act, Official Secrets Act, and criminal defamation laws–all of which give legal precedence to notions of national security over press freedom. We also advocate that you restore Malaysia’s past commitment to a free and open Internet.

CPJ strongly believes that your new government is uniquely placed to democratize Malaysia. Implementing new policies and amending old laws that promote, rather than restrict, press freedom, would in our view represent genuine reform. Thank you for your attention and we await your reply.


Joel Simon
Executive Director