Oliver Holmes South-east Asia correspondent
Friday 18 November 2016
Amnesty says hauling of Malaysiakini journalists before specially convened ‘cyber court’ is the latest move to stifle non-government media
The co-founders of an independent news website that has reported extensively on a corruption scandal involving Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, have been charged with offences including “intent to annoy”.
Facing up to one year in jail, the editors appeared before a recently set up “special cyber court” in Kuala Lumpur on Friday. Human Rights Watch said the use of the court was part of a strategy aimed at “shutting down the vibrant and diverse online news environment.”
The charges relate to a video posted on the Malaysiakini website of sacked ruling party member Khairuddin Abu Hassan criticising the attorney general at a press conference for being close with cabinet ministers, which he argued would undermine his independence to investigate government corruption.
The Najib scandal emerged in July 2015 when media reports said investigators had found that hundreds of millions of dollars from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state fund was transferred into the prime minister’s bank accounts.
But attorney general Mohamed Apandi Ali closed all domestic investigations in January, clearing Najib and saying $681m transferred into his personal bank account was a gift from the royal family in Saudi Arabia.
Malaysiakini’s editor-in-chief, Steven Gan, and co-founder, Premesh Chandran, have faced repeated harassment from Najib’s supporters, including when hundreds of protesters tried to forcibly shut down their offices earlier in November.
Gan told his staff this week that he would challenge the charges and “prove in court that by covering the press conference, we did not commit any crime but were merely doing our job as journalists”.
He added: “We have been investigated many times over the past years but this is the first time we are being charged.”
The charges relate to a 1998 law, written before Malaysiakini was founded, that sought to address complaints relating to “offensive content in the Internet”.
It bans “content which is indecent, obscene, false, menacing, or offensive in character with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass any person”.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the charges against Malaysiakini were “a serious violation of the freedom of press and show the increasingly dictatorial side of [Najib] and his government.
“By using rights-abusing laws, ludicrous arguments and special cyber courts, Malaysia appears to be aiming at shutting down the vibrant and diverse online news environment that has grown up because of the government’s control and censorship of the mainline print and TV media,” he said.
On 6 November officers from the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission raided the portal’s office and seized two computers.
Malaysia’s biggest civil society group, Bersih, has organised a rally in Kuala Lumpur that will again call for Najib to step down. Pro-Najib groups also have plans to demonstrate that day, leading to concerns about potential clashes.