KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia's top court on Monday heard a rare contempt charge by the attorney general against a popular online news portal for publishing readers' comments that criticized the judiciary, a move slammed by media groups as a clampdown on press freedom.
Attorney General Idrus Harun, who was appointed by a new government that took power in March, filed contempt proceedings against Malaysiakini and its editor-in-chief, Steven Gan, over comments made by five readers on its portal last month that allegedly tarnished the judiciary.
The Federal Court said it would deliver its verdict at a later date after hearing arguments from both sides. Prosecutors have said the portal should be held responsible for publishing the comments.
Lawyers for Malaysiakini rebutted that there was no intent of mischief, as the portal was unaware of the comments and had immediately removed them after it was notified by police.
“This issue will have a chilling effect not just on Malaysiakini but other media organizations, tech companies and millions of social media users in Malaysia," Gan said. If the portal is found guilty, he said it could impact freedom of expression online and how media groups run their online businesses.
Malaysiakini, the country’s first online news portal, was launched in 1999 and is known for its criticism of the government amid strict media censorship. Online media have since expanded and played a role that led to Malaysia's first change of government since independence in 2018 elections.
The reformist ruling alliance, led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, collapsed in February this year after his Malay party withdrew to form a new government with the former corruption-tainted regime. Mahathir, a two-time prime minister, resigned in protest, and his former party ally Muhyiddin Yassin was sworn in as his successor in March.
The Center for Independent Journalism has urged the government “to end and refrain from the continued use of intimidating measures to threaten and punish the media and silence opinions.”
Gerakan Media Merdeka, another press advocacy group, said in a recent statement, “The free media has an important role as a check and balance agent to the government and those in power."
“Any claims or charges laid against the media under the current political scenario will undoubtedly lead to an increasingly negative perception of the judiciary and government,” the group warned.
Apart from Malaysiakini, police last week grilled staff from news broadcaster Al Jazeera over a documentary on the treatment of undocumented immigrants that officials said was unfair and biased. An activist was also questioned about a social media post alleging mistreatment of refugees at detention centers.