The highest court in Malaysia on Friday, fined a leading news site over comments posted by readers that was considered offensive to the judiciary. This is happening amid deteriorating press freedom in the Southeast Asian nation.
There have been high degree of concerns over series of assault on independent media outlets in the region since a coalition scandalously seized power without conducting an election last year following the collapse of a reformist government.
Last year, Malaysia’s attorney general filed an application to cite Malaysiakini and its editor-in-chief, Steven Gan, for contempt of court over five comments posted by readers on its website that he claimed belittled the judiciary in the eye of the public.
A panel of judges at the country’s top court ruled that Malaysiakini was guilty of contempt and ordered the site to pay a 500,000 ringgit ($120,000) fine by Wednesday. This supercedes the 200,000 ringgit fine that prosecutors had pursued.
Delivering the verdict, Judge Rohana Yusuf said the act undermines the judiciary and explained that freedom of expression must remain “within the bounds permissible by law.”
She said, “And the law does not tolerate contempt of court as it undermines the system of judiciary.
“The impugned statements had gone far and wide, the content was spurious and reprehensible in nature and the content involved allegations of corruption which were unproven and untrue.”
Gan, who could have faced a jail term if convicted, was cleared, but he slammed the ruling alleging that the verdict targets shutting down the organisation. .
“The hefty fine against us is really an attempt not to just shut us up — but to shut us down,” he told reporters at the Federal Court in the administrative capital Putrajaya.
Following the ruling, the portal changed to black and white as a mark of protest and launched a fundraising drive to cover the fine.
The site has faced continual attacks since it was founded in 1999, ranging from police raids to criminal prosecutions, and has so far managed to survive every challenge.
Speaking in line with Gan, Human Rights Watch accused the Malaysian government of “attempting to bankrupt Malaysiakini with an outrageously excessive fine.”
HRW Deputy Asia Director, Phil Robertson said, “This decision is a blatant violation of freedom of expression and media freedom, and should be quashed.
“The result will certainly be a significant chilling of freedom of speech in Malaysia.”