Malaysia: Editor and editorial adviser of The Edge newspaper sued over stock market manipulation revelations

Condemning the use of SLAPPs, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for the dropping of criminal defamation charges against Azam Aris, former editor of the Malaysian business weekly The Edge, and his colleague Shanmugam Murugasu, for articles revealing stock market manipulation. 

“The use of SLAPPs to dissuade journalists from publishing investigations of public interest is unacceptable," said RSF's Asia-Pacific office. “We call on deputy public prosecutor Farhanah Fuad Faiz to drop the proceedings against Azam Aris and Shanmugam Murugasu and instead to protect Malaysian journalists against gag suits of this kind.”

After receiving a summons the previous day, Azam Aris appeared before a magistrates’ court in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Petaling Jaya on 13 September, where he was charged twice with criminal defamation under Section 500 of the Penal Code, which is punishable by up to two years in prison and a fine (on which Section 500 sets no limit).

The two cases, one of which concerns an article published in September 2020 and the other an article in April 2021, were heard by different magistrates, both of whom ordered Aris’s release on bail and set the next hearing for 22 November. The articles are alleged to have defamed a Malaysian businessman and several Malaysian companies.

Aged 61, Aris retired as The Edge’s chief editor in 2021 but continues to work part-time for the weekly. Contributing editor Shanmugam Murugasu, who was out of the country on 13 September, will be charged in connection with the second of the two cases on his return, prosecutors said.

Exposing stock market manipulation

Both articles were about signs that deliberate manipulation was responsible for surges in the values of penny stocks (low-valued stocks) on the Malaysian stock exchange. 

The first article reported strange transactions and irregularities in the valuations of around 20 penny stocks owned by a small group of businessmen suspected of reaching an anti-competitive agreement. One of them, Kua Khai Shyuan, the CEO of the DGB Asia group, filed a complaint in 2021 accusing The Edge of defaming him and his company.

The second article, in the 12 April 2021 issue, took the investigation further and reported that around 60 companies were now suspected of involvement in market manipulation resulting in gains that were “irrational” with regard to the overall market situation.

Acid attack in similar case

Neither Aris nor Murugasu wrote the articles for which they are being prosecuted. The articles were published without by-lines for safety reasons, because a stock exchange official who was investigating a similar case of market manipulation was the victim of an acid attack in 2018.

In a statement, Edge Media Group publisher Ho Kay Tat concluded: “We are, therefore, baffled as to why the police and the [Deputy Public Prosecutor’s] Office of Kuala Lumpur are pressing criminal defamation charges against us for informing investors about stock market manipulation. The volatile trading of penny stocks which took place in 2020 and early 2021 has abated, following our last article in April 2021 and after warnings by market regulators.”

Last January, RSF reported that the head of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) had brought a defamation suit against Lalitha Kunaratnam, an investigative journalist, for reporting an alleged conflict of interests within the commission.

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