Updated: July 13, 2020 06:53 AM GMT
Malaysiakini's editor-in-chief Steven Gan gestures as he arrives at the Federal Court in Putrajaya on July 13, as the site faces contempt of court proceedings. Mohd Rasfan/AFP
Foreign media professionals have slammed Malaysia’s justice system for proceeding with the prosecution of a prominent local journalist over comments posted online by readers.
Earlier this month a federal court in Kuala Lumpur agreed to hear contempt of court charges against Steven Gan, the editor of the popular Malaysiakini news website, over five comments posted by his site’s readers criticizing Malaysia’s judiciary.
The complaint against Gan was filed by Attorney-General Idrus Harun, who argued that the critical comments were made on Gan’s news website and therefore he was directly responsible for them.
Several readers of the site made critical comments about the country’s judiciary apropos of an article published by Malaysiakini in June regarding the reopening of courts after a months-long lockdown put in place nationwide to contain the spread of Covid-19.
The comments were removed by the news website’s administrators after being contacted by police. If convicted, Gan, whose trial is set to start on July 13, faces the prospect of a prison term and a fine, or both.
“Malaysian prosecutors should drop the bogus contempt of court charges pending against Steven Gan and stop using legal threats to intimidate the media,” stressed Shawn Crispin, a prominent Southeast Asia-based journalist who is a senior representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit that promotes press freedom worldwide.
“Pursuing an independent news outlet over comments from random internet users reeks of a witch hunt and sends a worrying signal about the state of press freedom under Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s new government,” Crispin said in a statement.
Journalist and other media professionals who are members of Thailand’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club concurred in a similar statement issued on the Bangkok-based group’s website.
“We believe the criminalization of reader comments in the digital age poses an unacceptable threat to media freedom, especially if, as in the Malaysiakini case, those comments were removed before the complaint was filed,” the statement said.
Many foreign observers see the trial of the journalist as yet another example of Malaysian authorities’ attempts to muzzle the country’s media and silence critical voices.
In May, Tashny Sukumaran, a Malaysia-based correspondent for Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, was summoned for questioning by local police after she had reported about a heavy-handed crackdown on migrants and asylum seekers in an area of Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysia’s Communications and Multimedia Act places limitations on freedom of expression in the country, and this and other laws are routinely abused by the authorities to try and suppress critical reporting, rights groups say.
“Malaysian authorities have returned to rights-abusing practices of the past, calling journalists, activists and opposition figures into police stations to be questioned about their writing and social media posts,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, have said.
Gan launched Malaysiakini (“Malaysia Now”) with other journalists in November 1999 with the aim of providing an independent source of news for the country’s readers.
“Malaysiakini was formed by journalists who [had] worked in the mainstream media, who [were] getting a bit fed up with the level of censorship in the mainstream media,” he explained in an interview shortly after the site’s launch.
“We felt there was a need for us to get into an alternative [medium] to break that self-censorship, to get across to Malaysians information [that is] not getting through,” he added.