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Malaysiakini verdict will have ‘chilling effect’ on Malaysian press freedom, advocates say

A top court found the news outlet responsible for some readers' comments on its website. Then readers came to the rescue.

Malaysia’s top court has found news outlet Malaysiakini guilty of contempt of court over readers’ comments deemed critical of the country’s judiciary ー a verdict decried by advocates as a blow to press freedom.

The seven-judge panel today ordered the media company to pay a hefty $123,600 fine while finding Steven Gan, the outlet’s editor-in-chief, not guilty.

The case started last June when the country’s attorney general brought charges against Malaysiakini and Gan, saying that reader comments left on the news site threatened people’s confidence in the judiciary.

The ruling “delivers a body blow to our continual campaign to fight corruption, among others,” Gan told reporters after the hearing.

Gan, a member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, added that he was “terribly disappointed” by the court decision, which “will put a huge burden on media organizations and millions of social media users.”

“It has a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Malaysia,” he said.

Immediately after the verdict, Malaysiakini supporters began to send donations to help the news organization pay the fine.

In less than five hours, the outlet’s legal defense fund received more than $135,000, a sum that exceeds the penalty fee.

Thanking the readers for their support, Malaysiakini chief executive officer Premesh Chandran said “Malaysiakini will continue reporting without fear or favour, and will do its best to make sure the people’s voices are heard.”

A precarious environment for journalists

Gan and Chandran founded the outlet in 1999 after growing frustrated with the mainstream media’s pro-government attitude and widespread government censorship, they told BBC.

They launched the country’s first online news site with the idea of using this new medium to cover the news in an independent and innovative way, while maintaining journalistic standards of fairness and accuracy.

Since then, Malaysiakini has become a pioneering news organization in South East Asia, reaching 2.5 million readers with articles published in four languages.

But it’s also been under attack for its journalism. Malaysiakini reporters have been arrested and accused of sedition. They have been detained and beaten by the police after covering street protests. Vandals have smeared the company’s walls with red paint and, on one occasion, left a live duck ー suspected to be a threat related to black magic.

Despite the many challenges of reporting in a country where media freedom continues to be precarious, the recent contempt charges are a first in the publication’s two-decade history, Malaysiakini reported.

Last June, readers left five comments at the bottom of an article about courts reopening after the COVID-19 lockdown, allegedly accusing the judiciary of wrongdoing. (The comments have since been deleted by the news outlet.)

Attorney General Idrus Harun filed charges against Malaysiakini and Gan holding them accountable for what he described as “unwarranted” and “demeaning” attacks by readers.

The previous month, Idrus had been at the center of a controversy after he dropped money laundering charges against Hollywood producer Riza Aziz, the stepson of former Prime Minister Najib Razak, for his alleged involvement in the country’s largest corruption scandal.

In delivering the sentence, Court of Appeal president Rohana Yusuf said Malaysiakini was responsible for those remarks. One judge dissented.

“The impugned statements had gone far and wide … the content was spurious and reprehensible in nature and the content involved allegations of corruption which were unproven and untrue,” Judge Rohana said.

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