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Malaysiakini contempt case - a shot heard around the world
Published:  Feb 20, 2021 1:28 AM
Updated: Feb 21, 2021 12:51 AM

Yesterday's Federal Court verdict in which Malaysiakini was found guilty of contempt of court over readers' comments on a news article was big news, with many of the world's most prominent news organisations running stories about it.

The BBC's article "Malaysiakini: The upstart that changed the Malaysian media landscape" saw Southeast Asia correspondent Jonathan Head taking a look back at the company's humble beginnings.

"Tucked away in an unremarkable business park in a suburban district of the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur is the headquarters of a remarkable experiment in journalism. It has come under attack.

"Malaysiakini's success so far, its very survival, is all the more remarkable in a country where all news media was once subject to government control, and in a region where truly independent, quality journalism is difficult, dangerous, and often driven to the margins," he wrote.

His counterpart in The Guardian Rebecca Ratcliffe cited fears that the hard-won press freedom which emerged after the defeat of Umno in 2018 was now back under the Muhyiddin Yassin administration.

"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," The Guardian article noted.

Al Jazeera itself carried a news piece on the verdict in which it pointed out that while Malaysia has moved up the rankings in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index in recent years, the country is designated only “partly free” by US non-profit organisation Freedom House.

In yesterday's ruling, the Federal Court fined Malaysiakini RM500,000 over readers' comments ruled to be contemptuous. A fundraiser to help cover the fine exceeded the RM500,000 mark in less than five hours.

The court ruling raised concerns from lawyers, foreign missions, and even Umno about its possible impact on freedom of speech.

Meanwhile, the New York Times went with the headline: "5 Readers Comments Just Cost a News Website US$124,000" while ABC News quoted Malaysiakini's editor-in-chief Steven Gan quite extensively as he 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 organisations, companies, and millions of social media users ... it has a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Malaysia.

“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 organisations like Malaysiakini," ABC quoted Gan as saying.

The case was also given prominent coverage by regional outlets such as Singapore's Straits Times, Thailand's Bangkok Post, and Hong Kong's South China Morning Post.

A more unusual item saw the Spanish-language Agencia EFE carry a report on YouTube entitled, "Un tribunal malasio multa a un portal de noticias por comentarios de lectores" (Malaysian court fines news portal for reader comments).

It was also carried by major news wires services like Reuters and journalism watchdog Reporters Without Borders, thus ensuring that the verdict against Malaysiakini made news around the world.

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