KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysia’s highest court on Friday found news portal Malaysiakini in contempt of court over comments posted by readers deemed offensive to the judiciary, in a case widely seen as a test of media freedom in the Southeast Asian nation.
Last year, Malaysia’s attorney general filed an application to cite Malaysiakini and editor-in-chief Steven Gan for contempt over five comments posted by readers on its website that it said undermined public confidence in the judiciary.In a six to one decision on Friday, a Federal Court panel found Malaysiakini was fully responsible for publishing the readers’ comments that “undermined the system of justice in the country” and fined the news portal 500,000 ringgit (S$164,440).
“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,” said judge Rohana Yusuf, who chaired the panel.
The fine was more than double the 200,000 ringgit prosecutors had sought, though the court cleared Gan of any offence.Malaysiakini and Gan had maintained that they could not be held responsible and that the offending comments had been immediately removed after they were contacted by police.
In a country with a highly regulated media often dominated by state-controlled groups, Malaysiakini has been a platform for the opposition and a critic of the establishment.
After the hearing, Gan said he was “very disappointed” with the court’s decision, which he said put a burden on news and technology companies to control comments posted by external parties.
“It will have a chilling effect on discussion of public issues in the country and delivers a body blow on our campaign to fight corruption in the country,” Gan told a news conference.
It is unlikely Malaysiakini can appeal the verdict because the case was heard before Malaysia’s highest court.
The ruling may also have broader implications for how social media companies like Facebook and Twitter manage their sites, especially as the case involved comments by third parties, said Malaysiakini’s lawyer, Malik Imtiaz Sarwar.
“I would think it is safe to say that you could similarly take issue with postings or comments on Facebook or Twitter. But it’s still premature and I think we should wait for the judgments,” he said.
In a brief joint statement, the British and Canadian high commissions raised concerns over the court’s decision, saying that media freedom is a “fundamental importance to the security, prosperity and wellbeing of all societies”.
Rights groups also spoke out on the ruling.
In a tweet, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development said the fact that the fine was double what prosecutors had sought was a sign of judicial harassment against dissenting voices and a failure to protect press freedom.
In January, Gan said reporters should not “give up” in the face of what he described as “harassment” by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government.
He said in the two decades since he founded Malaysiakini, its journalists had been declared traitors, faced debilitating cyber-attacks, kicked out of press conferences, arrested, and raided by the police.
Malaysia has moved up the World Press Freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders in recent years. But rights groups have said freedom of speech and freedom of the press face renewed pressure after an unexpected change to a Muhyiddin government in March last year.
The government had denied that it was clamping down on media freedom.