Malaysia’s top court ruled Friday that a popular online news portal was guilty of contempt for publishing readers’ comments that criticized the judiciary, a landmark case slammed by media groups as a clampdown on press freedom.
Attorney General Idrus Harun filed the charges against Malaysiakini and its Editor-in-Chief Steven Gan over comments made by five readers on the portal last year that he said undermined public confidence in the judiciary.
A seven-member panel in the Federal Court ruled 6-1 that Malaysiakini was liable for third-party comments but exonerated Gan. It fined Malaysiakini 500,000 ringgit ($123,685).
Gan warned the ruling could restrict discussion of issues of public interest.
“It will affect not just Malaysiakini. The decision will place an undue burden on media organizations, companies and millions of social media users … it has a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Malaysia,” he told reporters.
“In an environment where we have a vibrant social media today, it is imperative we explain, we illuminate, we educate … instead of trying to punish media organizations like Malaysiakini,” he said.
Gan also said the hefty fine, more than double what prosecutors sought, was unfair and “an attempt to perhaps not just punish us but to shut us down.”
Prosecutors have said the portal should be held responsible for publishing the comments. But defense lawyers argued there was no intent of mischief, as the portal was unaware of the comments and had immediately removed them after it was notified by police.
The Center for Independent Journalism, a local media watchdog, tweeted Friday that it stands in solidarity with Malaysiakini and “strongly condemns efforts by the state to intimidate and threaten media freedom and independence.”
Amnesty International Malaysia said it was deeply alarmed by the unprecedented ruling.
“The use of contempt of court laws to censor online debate and silence independent media is yet another example of the shrinking space for people to express themselves freely in the country,” said Amnesty Malaysia’s director Katrina Jorene Maliamauv.
It also called for the repeal of the section under the Evidence Act, which was used to convict Malaysiakini and which “grants the government unfettered powers to censor online discussion.”
Malaysiakini started in 1999 as the country’s first online news portal. It quickly became popular for its blunt reporting amid tight government control over mainstream media and the requirement for them to apply for annual publishing permits. The news site was among the handful of Malaysians publications that reported in depth on the massive 1MDB corruption scandal, which tainted the tenure of former Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Online media have since expanded and played a role that led to Malaysia’s first change of government since independence at national elections in 2018.
Last March, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin took power after tying up with parties in the former corruption-tainted government. Under his watch, rights groups have voiced concern over a crackdown on media, activists, and others.
Police last year grilled staff from news broadcaster Al Jazeera over a documentary on the treatment of undocumented immigrants that officials said was unfair and biased. An activist was also questioned about a social media post alleging mistreatment of refugees at detention centers.
Reporting by the Associated Press from Putrajaya, Malaysia.