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Malaysian govt tightens grip on media freedom

The Malaysian government has never been friendly to an open and democratic press. But its lawsuit against an online publication is taking things to another level. Former Malaysiakini intern Jarni Blakkarly reports.

The Malaysian government has never been a friend to a free press, but a recent case highlights the extreme antipathy, as Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak and his political party are suing an online media outlet for defamation over comments made by its users.

Even in a country that’s no stranger to the harassment of its independent online media, the case is a bizarre one.

The lawsuit, filed last month, centres around two comments made in a “Your Say” section of Malaysiakini (Malaysia Now), where comments made by users on popular articles are compiled into a story. The two comments are opinion-based statements regarding Najib’s performance as leader as well as allegations of corruption within his party, United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). The lawyers representing Najib and UMNO have said the accusations made by users sought to “lower the honour and credibility” of the government.

Malaysia has a strict system of publication licensing that means all traditional media remains pro-government. The majority of the newspapers are owned by government political parties or affiliates. But online media has not been subject to the same restrictions. Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who ruled Malaysia with an iron grip for 22 years until 2003, guaranteed internet freedom for the country in 1996 — a decision he said last year he regretted.

The online media services Malaysia’s younger, urban population, most of whom support the opposition, which won 52% of the popular vote at the last election but fell well short of government due to a highly gerrymandered system. The government’s support base is in mostly rural and indigenous areas, often without internet access.

There is an inevitable schism between the traditional media and the online media. Interning for three months at Malaysiakini last year was an eye-opening experience for me. At a press conference, a room full of 30 journalists from the traditional media would fire soft and friendly questions to the minister for half an hour. When I or a senior journalist from Malaysiakini got a question in, the minister would often stop, ask what organisation we were from, then crack a joke: “You print only lies anyway,” “What is the point, or I won’t answer your questions”. All the other journalists in the room would crack up laughing.

Few government ministers engage with the online media, and the recent lawsuit by Najib is an attempt to create judicial recognition of what the government claims on a daily basis: that these organisations are biased and untrustworthy.

Malaysiakini, which started in 1998, was one of the earliest online papers in the world. Operating behind a paywall, the site has around 2.5 million readers a month and is the country’s largest despite a string of other online media competitors emerging in recent years. The organisation and its two editors, who are also being sued, have stood by the comments and offered the PM a chance to reply to the comments, which he has refused.

In this case, the traditional and the online media narratives are set to collide. Has a PM unfairly been defamed by unprovable allegations or are readers’ rights to comment and vent their opinions a part of an active and democratic freedom of press?

Najib came to power in 2008 promising to reform Malaysia’s media laws. That promise now seems a long time gone.

*Jarni Blakkarly is a columnist for Tokyo-based The Diplomat and is a regular writer for Asian-Australian publication Peril Magazine

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