Malaysian news Web site harassed over protest coverage

New York, September 15, 2009—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the recent official harassment of Malaysiakini, a widely read online news site that has faced persistent threats from government authorities over its 11-year history. 

Officials from the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) entered Malaysiakini’s offices on September 8 and videotaped its staff as they replied to questions related to the posting of two videos the government has called “provocative.”

The first video story, taped by Malaysiakini staff, showed mainly Muslim protesters rallying against the relocation of a Hindu temple by delivering a severed cow’s head to a government office on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, the capital. Cows are sacred to Hindus, who are a minority in Malaysia. The government maintains strict laws barring speech and actions that could stoke racial tensions in Malaysia’s ethnically diverse society. The second contested clip featured a press conference held on September 2 by Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who described the protesters as “victims” in his on-the-record comments.

On September 3, the MCMC called on Malaysiakini editors in a letter to remove the videos, which the agency claimed were in violation of Sections 211 and 233 of the 1998 Communication and Multimedia Act (CMA). Under the CMA, any individual found guilty of publishing content “which is indecent, obscene, false, menacing, or offensive in character with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass any person” is liable to a maximum 50,000 ringgit (US $14,270) fine or a jail sentence. Malaysiakini editors have so far refused the government’s request.  

“The harassment of Malaysiakini demonstrates that the Malaysian government has abandoned its past pledge not to censor the Internet,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “We call on the authorities to stop harassing one of Malaysia’s few independent and internationally respected sources of news.”

MCMC officials have in recent days entered Malaysiakini’s news office on two separate occasions to establish the “digital trail” of the videos by taking copies of the hard drives and servers used to upload the clips, according to Chief Editor K. Kabilan, who was among the questioned staff members.

In 1996, the Malaysian government vowed not to censor the Internet in a bid to attract foreign investment to establish the country as a force in the growing information technology economic sector. Authorities have incrementally violated that pledge, including a harsh crackdown on bloggers who have posted political commentaries and materials critical of the government.