Just days after his newspaper Malaysiakini was found guilty of contempt of court and slapped with a heavy fine over several readers’ comments, the newspaper’s top editor has come under investigation for sedition – for criticizing that very same verdict.
On February 19, the Federal Court in Putrajaya found the news site Malaysiakini guilty of contempt of court over several readers’ comments and imposed a hefty 500,000 ringgit (nearly $124,000) fine on the publication.
A seven-judge appeals court panel ruled that Malaysiakini was legally responsible for five comments left by readers on its site, which were deemed insulting to the judiciary. The fine it levied was more than double the amount sought by prosecutors.
The news outlet’s co-founder and editor-in-chief, Steven Gan, who was acquitted of the same charge, went on to criticize the court’s decision in unequivocal terms. The ruling “will have a tremendous chilling impact on discussions of issues of public interest and it delivers a body blow to our continual campaign to fight corruption, among others,” he told reporters after the hearing.
Gan 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.”
Monday brought the news that a police investigation of Gan had been opened under the country’s sedition and multimedia laws. A similar investigation is also being pursued against Charles Santiago, a Malaysian member of parliament, who also excoriated last week’s ruling.
The pair’s sentiments were shared widely. Amnesty International Malaysia said it was deeply alarmed by the verdict, which held Malaysiakini responsible for the comments posted by its readers, describing it as “a travesty of justice” and “a grave setback for freedom of expression in the country.” The Sarawak Report was more wry: “Malaysia’s judiciary have their highest officers to thank for laying them open to popular judgement in possibly the most exquisite piece of justice ever delivered – against themselves.”
Gan founded Malaysiakini in 1999 with Premesh Chandran, after growing frustrated with working in the media in a nation where most major broadsheets are owned by political parties, and hence, are forced to tread carefully on sensitive political topics.
Since then, Malaysiakini has had a long history of bruising run-ins with the authorities. Its offices have been raided by police, and its reporters have been arrested, detained and beaten. It also reported with relish on the gargantuan 1MDB scandal and its links to then Prime Minister Najib Razak, earning itself several more encounters with the Malaysian court system.
In the wake of the Federal Court’s ruling, Malaysiakini’s supporters quickly closed ranks. Within a number of hours, the newspaper’s legal defense fund had received more than $135,000 in donations, a sum that exceeds the fine handed down by the court. But as these new investigations show, and the past two decades amply demonstrate, this is unlikely to be the last time that the authorities seek to silence the feisty Malaysian news site.
“It is a cat and mouse game for us,” Gan told me when I interviewed him at Malaysiakini’s offices on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur in late 2017. “We may have this fancy office and all that,” he added, “but we do not know whether we will still be around tomorrow or the next day.”