Record fine for Malaysian news site over readers’ comments
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the record fine imposed on Malaysiakini, one of Malaysia’s leading investigative news sites, for readers’ comments critical of the judiciary, and the subsequent sedition investigation into its editor for criticizing the court’s decision. This is liable to result in more self-censorship in the media, RSF warned, reiterating its call for the government to show that it is determined to defend press freedom.
A website renowned for investigating corruption, Malaysiakini was fined 500,000 ringgits (nearly 100,000 euros) by a federal court on 19 February after being found guilty of contempt of court because of five small comments criticizing the judiciary that readers posted at the foot of an article published in June.
Malaysiakini editor-in-chief Steven Gan, who was also accused of contempt in the case brought by attorney general Idrus Harun, was nonetheless acquitted.
Against all logic, presiding judge Rohana Yusuf ruled that Malaysiakini failed to moderate the “reprehensible” and “spurious” comments correctly, ignoring the fact that its moderators took them down as soon as the police drew them to the website’s attention. The record fine imposed by the court was more than twice what the prosecution requested.
In a new development today, prosecutors opened a sedition investigation into Gan’s comments after the 19 February hearing, in which he criticized the court’s decision. A sedition charge carries a possible three-year jail sentence.
Climate of self-censorship
“We condemn this absurd verdict and sentence that is out of all proportion to Malaysiakini’s alleged offence, and we call on prosecutors to immediate terminate the sedition investigation, for which there are absolutely no grounds,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “This case will have a major impact on independent media and their way of interacting with readers, and will inevitably end up affecting the quality of the public debate in Malaysia. It is also liable to reinforce the climate of self-censorship that has taken hold in the media since Muhyiddin Yassin became prime minister a year ago. We urge this government to fully commit to upholding press freedom.”
Speaking to journalists after the 19 February hearing, Gan said: "The hefty fine against us is really an attempt not to just shut us up but to shut us down.” He added that it would have “a tremendous chilling impact on discussions of issues of public interest.”
In a surge of public support for Malaysiakini after the trial, a crowdfunding campaign brought the website enough money to cover the fine in less than six hours.
After Malaysians voted to remove Najib Razak as prime minister in 2018, the country rose 44 places in two years in RSF's World Press Freedom Index. But, since a new coalition government led by Muhyiddin Yassin took office in March, press freedom violations have surged and Malaysia’s current ranking, 101st out of 180 countries, is unlikely to be maintained.