Last Updated: Friday, 29 August 2014, 14:18 GMT

Attacks on the Press in 2003 - Malaysia

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 2004
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 2003 - Malaysia, February 2004, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c566ad20.html [accessed 29 August 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

After 22 years of autocratci leadership, Asia's longest serving ruler, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, stepped down from his post in October, leaving behind a legacy of rapid economic growth. He also left strict controls on the press enforced through virtual one-party rule, crony ownership of most media outlets, and a pervasive climate of self-censorship.

His hand-picked successor, Abdullah Badawi, appeared to lack either the stature inside the dominant United Malays National Organization (UMNO) or the inclination to relax the tough controls on the media imposed by Mahathir. Badawi served as home minister for many years under Mahathir and was the official in charge of enforcing the country's press laws. Within his first few weeks in office, he began to show his stripes when the editor of a major state-controlled newspaper was sacked in what was likely a politically motivated dispute.

Abdullah Ahmad, editor of the UMNO-owned New Straits Times newspaper group, had written an article criticizing the harsh form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia and calling for reform of the Saudi monarchy. After Saudi Arabia formally protested the article, the management committee of the newspaper group, which is chaired by the prime minister, used the article as a pretext for firing the editor. However, most observers believe that the editor, a Mahathir appointee, was let go because he had criticized Badawi publicly and had questioned his staying power as prime minister.

The incident underscored the tight relationship between the government and the media. Under Malaysia's complex and sometimes tense racial balancing act – power is essentially divided among the majority Malay population, an economically powerful Chinese minority, and a smaller ethnic Indian minority – all daily newspapers are owned by UMNO; its partner, the Malaysian Chinese Association; or businessmen allied with the government. The editors of major media outlets are political appointees and serve at the pleasure of the nation's rulers. Changes in editorial management are often signs of internal political conflict.

Journalists are kept in line through a combination of management pressure and threats of prosecution under the tough Internal Security Act. Few mainstream journalists ever step out of line.

In January, what is arguably Malaysia's only independent news organization, the Internet newspaper Malaysiakini.com, had it offices raided, computers confiscated, and staff interrogated by police acting on a complaint from the youth wing of UMNO, which was angered by a letter published in Malaysiakini.com complaining about the official pro-Malay racial preferences in the country. Soon, businesses fearful of government reprisals pulled their advertising and the landlord threatened to evict the company from its offices. An international outcry accompanied the raid, which was widely seen as an act of harassment. By year's end, the Attorney General's Office had yet to file formal charges against Malaysiakini.com or the publication's editor, Steven Gan, a 1991 CPJ International Press Freedom Award recipient.

"We hope they are going to let it go," said Premesh Chandran, the chief executive officer of Malaysiakini.com, "But we have no guarantees." Fortunately, Chandran said, advertising revenue has rebounded, the landlord lost his eviction case in court, and news-hungry Malaysians still subscribe to the rapidly growing site in record numbers.

The Internet has been the one bright spot in the otherwise dreary landscape of curtailed expression in Malaysia. Mahathir long pursued the goal of making Malaysia an information technology research and development center and, as a result, allowed the Internet to flourish uncensored. So far that remains the case, although conservative elements in the ruling party have called for greater restrictions on the Internet.

The openness exists only in cyberspace, however. Malaysiakini.com applied for permission to publish a daily newspaper in late 2002 but had received no answer to its application by year's end. Similarly, a long-standing campaign by some loosely affiliated mainstream journalists to repeal the highly restrictive 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Act, which gives the government the power to license and close newspapers, has gone nowhere.

The Malaysian government's relationship with the foreign press has been contentious for years, and 2003 was no different. Despite his many accomplishments in the economic sphere, during his long tenure Mahathir has frequently acted as if criticism of his government in the foreign press is an affront to the entire nation. The government routinely attacks foreign publications verbally, hauls them into court, or bans their distribution.

In April, the government threatened to ban the U.K.-based Economist magazine over an article that praised the economic accomplishments of Mahathir but urged him to step aside gracefully for the good of the country. Pro-government organizations staged public burnings of the magazine, and Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said, "I think we have to take serious action [on the matter]." In the end, the magazine was not banned.


2003 Documented Cases – Malaysia

JANUARY 20, 2003

Malaysiakini
HARASSED

Police from a special computer-crimes department entered the offices of the online paper Malaysiakini in Kuala Lumpur, interrogated several journalists, and seized the company's computers, according to staff. Officers occupied the offices from noon until about 5:30 p.m. The Web site (www.malaysiakini.com) was operating again by about 10 p.m. that night.

Police Superintendent Mohamad Kamarrudin told staff that the computers would be held and searched for evidence in a possible sedition case to be brought against Malaysiakini, according to sources at the company. Five days earlier, the youth wing of the ruling United Malays National Party (UMNO), Pemuda-UMNO, filed a complaint with police about an anonymous letter that Malaysiakini had published on January 9. The letter criticized Malaysia's system of racial preferences, which favors ethnic Malays, and also compared Pemuda-UMNO to the United States' Ku Klux Klan. Pemuda-UMNO called the letter seditious and said it could incite racial hatred.

During the police raid, officials demanded that Malaysiakini reveal who wrote the letter. When editor Steven Gan refused, officers began seizing the computers. On January 21, at around 11 a.m., Gan complied with an official order to appear in person at local police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur. Following a three-hour interrogation, Gan told reporters, "From the line of questioning, I have a strong belief that they will likely take action against me." Sedition is punishable by up to three years' imprisonment; possession of seditious material is punishable by up to 18 months in prison.

By early March, police had returned all but four of the computers, and Malaysiakini was operating as normal. However, the publication reported that the average number of readers had dropped because people feared that police were monitoring the site after the raid.

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