Malaysia’s Muhyiddin dials back press freedom

Advocates are sounding the alarm over a rapid deterioration of press freedom conditions in Malaysia following a series of police raids, arrests and interrogations of whistle-blowers and reporters who risk being jailed for years under draconian legislation often used to target the media. 

Six journalists from Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera are among those currently under criminal investigation for alleged sedition, defamation and transmitting offensive content after the network aired on July 3 a documentary chronicling Malaysia’s controversial treatment of undocumented migrants during the coronavirus pandemic. 

In a separate case, Steven Gan, the editor-in-chief of the news organization Malaysiakini, widely considered the most popular independent media portal in Malaysia, faces contempt of court charges in connection with reader remarks posted in the comments section of an article that authorities said had threatened public confidence in the judiciary. 

“We are already seeing a pattern where media freedoms are really being affected purely through the way certain media outlets or journalists are being targeted,” said Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) executive director Wathshlah Naidu. “This pattern can already show that there is a certain concerted effort by the government.” 

Observers say the escalating crackdown on media and critical expression is driven by leadership insecurity. Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin presides over a fragile governing alliance with the slimmest parliamentary majority in the country’s history, and analysts are divided over whether his premiership will survive snap polls that could be called in 2021. 

Muhyiddin took office on March 1 at the helm of Perikatan Nasional (PN), a loose coalition government following a political crisis that saw the collapse of the previous reformist government. Critics and observers say recent press freedom gains have been significantly rolled back under his unelected watch, with the Covid-19 crisis serving as a pretext to limit reporters’ access to events and newsmakers. 

“Day-to-day reporting has changed somewhat since the change in government, and has sort of been exacerbated by Covid-19. Using physical distancing as the rationale, the government has largely avoided facing the press in its first few months, and in some cases continues to do so,” said Zurairi AR, assistant news editor and columnist at Malay Mail. 

“Anecdotally, it’s now harder to obtain data or comments on issues unless you catch these lawmakers at places like Parliament or events,” said Tashny Sukumaran, the South China Morning Post’s Kuala Lumpur correspondent who was questioned by police in May for her reporting and social media posts on the mass arrests of hundreds of undocumented migrants during Malaysia’s coronavirus lockdown. 

Sukumaran was questioned by police again in July in connection with an article she wrote on the 2018 general election. She has yet to be charged with an offense. 

“The government believes it can shore up support and simultaneously solidify its grasp on power by making nationalism a central plank of its platform while silencing dissent. But it’s also just a throwback to yesteryear – it worked then, is the rationale, so why won’t it work now?,” said Sukumaran. 

On August 5, Malaysian police raided the Kuala Lumpur offices of Al Jazeera and two local broadcasters that aired a documentary titled “Locked up in Malaysia’s Lockdown” produced by the Qatari network’s Asia-Pacific current affairs program, 101 East. 

Mohamad Rayhan Kabir, a Bangladeshi man who criticized the country’s treatment of undocumented migrants during an interview with 101 East, was arrested last month and denied access to his lawyers. Authorities said he would be “deported and blacklisted from entering Malaysia forever” without specifying whether he had committed a crime. 

Police have sent the findings of their probe into Al Jazeera to the Attorney General’s Chambers, which will decide whether to bring charges against the network’s staff. The government denies any mistreatment of undocumented migrants who were rounded up en masse earlier this year and maintain that the documentary tarnished the country’s image. 

“Part of the government’s propaganda, I would say their main rhetorical narrative, is that everything out there is disinformation or ‘fake news,’” said CIJ’s Naidu. “Hence, the reason why they have to adopt these measures, including charging people, is to curb the spread of fake news. This is backtracking on the previous government’s commitments.” 

Naidu says a conviction against Malaysiakini would have major implications in that the ruling would set a precedent for whether media entities will be held legally responsible for third-party comments in the future. Federal prosecutors argue that the news portal itself is presumed to have committed contempt for by providing the platform for reader comments. 

Malaysiakini and its editor-in-chief Gan have vowed to vigorously fight the contempt charge. If found guilty, he could be jailed and fined; there are no legal limits to the penalties for contempt of court. The subscription-based digital publication maintains that it deleted five comments deemed as critical of the country’s judiciary within minutes of being alerted by Malaysian police. 

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