Website accused of contempt in another sign of decline in Malaysia
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Malaysian justice system to drop the spurious contempt of court proceedings against the news website Malaysiakini and its editor-in-chief Steven Gan over readers’ comments critical of the judiciary, and calls on Malaysia’s new government to show that it is determined to defend press freedom.
When a federal court hears the case on 13 July, there is no limit to the length of the prison sentence it could impose on Steven Gan or the size of the fine it could impose on Malaysiakini if it finds them guilty of contempt.
Initiating the proceedings, attorney-general Idrus Harun accused Malaysiakini of “facilitating” the posting of “unwarranted" and "demeaning” attacks on the judiciary by readers beneath an article on 9 June reporting that the courts were going to reopen after the coronavirus lockdown.
Malaysiakini’s moderators took the comments down as soon as the police drew them to the website’s attention two days after they had been posted.
When Gan logically called for the proceedings to be withdrawn at a pre-trial hearing on 2 July, the judge ruled: “By virtue of Section 114A of the Evidence Act 1950, the respondents are presumed to have published the impugned comments.” He added that, “the presumption is a rebuttable one."
“We call on the federal court’s judges to immediately abandon these utterly grotesque charges against Steven Gan and Malaysiakini,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“Malaysia’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index that RSF published earlier this year improved more than any other country, but we have seen an alarming surge in violations of journalistic freedom since the new coalition government took over four months ago. We call on Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government to halt this dangerous trend by rejecting the past practice of censoring and harassing reporters.”
After a change of government through the polls in May 2018, the first in modern Malaysia’s history, the overall environment for journalists improved dramatically, above all because they were no longer being subjected to the prosecutions that the previous prime minister, Najib Razak, had orchestrated against them.
But press freedom violations have risen since the fall of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s reformist government in February. The latest is yesterday’s intimidatory announcement by the police, which RSF condemned in a tweet, that they are going to investigate Al Jazeera’s Kuala Lumpur bureau over a report last week about a wave of migrant worker arrests during the government’s efforts to combat the coronavirus epidemic.
The Qatari TV broadcaster’s report could contain “seditious elements,” the police inspector-general said yesterday. The claims being made by the police and other officials are so serious that an Al Jazeera journalist in Kuala Lumpur, speaking on condition of anonymity, told RSF that he feared the bureau could be closed down.
Tashny Sukumaran, the Kuala Lumpur correspondent of the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, was questioned by the police in May for covering the same wave of arrests of migrant workers and is now facing a possible two-year jail sentence on a charge of “insult with intent to provoke a breach of the peace.” RSF included her in its list of 30 coronavirus “information heroes.”
Although police dropped the initial case against Sukumaran, she was summoned again on July 1 for her contribution to a book on the 2018 general elections entitled “Rebirth: Reformasi, Resistance and Hope in New Malaysia”. Her hearing followed Home Ministry's order of banning the book issued on the same day.
Malaysia is ranked 101st out of 180 countries and territories in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.