A court in Malaysia ruled on Friday that an independent news website is in contempt of the judiciary over the hosting of contemptuous comments posted by five of its readers.
The federal court fined Malaysiakini 500,000 ringit (US$123,000) for contempt of court, a verdict condemned as a grave setback for freedom of expression in the country.
The attorney general first filed the charges against web-based only Malaysiakini and its editor-in-chief Steven Gan last year, over five reader comments that were critical of the judiciary.
Gan, who faced a possible prison sentence over the allegations, was found not guilty.
Gan and the outlet maintained they could not be held responsible for the views expressed by its readers and that moderators had removed the offending comments as soon as they were contacted by police.
Gan said Malaysiakini was very disappointed by the decision and that it will have “a tremendous chilling impact on discussions of issues of public interest”.
The verdict, Gan said, “delivers a body blow to our continual campaign to fight corruption, among others”.
“I think the decision made against us and the hefty fine that has been put against us is perhaps an attempt to not only punish us but shut us down,” he said.
The outlet has since launched a crowdfunding appeal to cover the fine.
Malaysiakini, which has been described as the country’s first independent news website, was founded in 1999 by Gan and Premesh Chandran, who were frustrated by widespread censorship across mainstream media.
In the two decades that have followed, the site’s journalists have been targeted by the authorities, arrested, accused of behaving as traitors and banned from press conferences
Media freedoms had begun to improve after the 2018 election, when the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which had run Malaysia for 61 years, was replaced with a reformist coalition.
However, the collapse of the reformist government last February was followed by a clampdown on media freedoms.
Over the past year, criminal investigations have been initiated against both journalists and activists who have criticised the government, including Al Jazeera which was investigated for sedition after it published a documentary about the country’s treatment of migrant workers.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said the verdict was a sign that the country had reverted “back to the bad old days of Malaysian governments trying to censor and control what the media is putting out about them.”
Amnesty International Malaysia said the verdict was “yet another example of the shrinking space for people to express themselves freely in the country.”
“The conviction and RM500,000 fine is a grave setback for freedom of expression in the country,” said Katrina Jorene Maliamauv, executive director of Amnesty International Malaysia. (Source: The Guardian)