Malaysia’s highest court has found a popular news portal 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 South-east Asian nation.
Malaysia’s attorney-general filed an application last year to cite Malaysiakini and editor-in-chief Steven Gan for contempt of court 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 panel of judges in the federal court ruled that Malaysiakini held full responsibility for its website, including whatever is published, and fined it 500,000 ringit ($123,000).
The panel, however, found Gan not guilty of the offence.
It is unlikely Malaysiakini will be able to appeal against the verdict since the case was heard before the country’s highest court.
Malaysiakini and Gan have maintained they could not be held responsible and the offending comments had been removed immediately after they were contacted by police.
Gan and Malaysiakini’s legal team could not immediately be reached for comment.
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 Sans Frontières 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 has denied that it was clamping down on media freedom.