Fears of press freedom clampdown in Malaysia as publisher is fined for readers’ comments
The Malaysian government has found news website Malaysiakini guilty of contempt of court after its readers posted comments about the country’s judiciary.
Malaysiakini is one of the last news websites in Malaysia to host a comment section
The website, which was fined RM500,000 (US$123,000), was charged with contempt of court in 2020 over five comments posted by readers on its website that Malaysia’s attorney general said undermined public confidence in the 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,” said judge Rohana Yusuf, who chaired the panel of six judges.
Why does this matter?
Malaysiakini and its editor-in-chief Steven Gan maintained that they are not responsible for readers’ comments and that the offending comments had been immediately removed after they were contacted by police.
The five comments were posted under a June 9 news report titled ’CJ orders all courts to be fully operational from July 1’.
The website said it was not aware of the five offensive comments previously as no readers had reported these comments and as the comments did not carry any of the “suspected words” that its filter could detect; its editorial team had immediately reviewed and removed the comments upon being alerted by the police.
Malaysia has a highly regulated media and Malaysiakini has been a platform for the opposition and critics of the establishment. The government has denied that it was clamping down on media freedom.
The website was founded in 1999 and is one of the country’s earliest online news portals. It is one of the few websites that still retains a comment section on its website.
Gan said he was ”very disappointed” with the court’s decision. He said “This puts 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.”
An Australian court previously ruled that media organisations that post their own articles on social media are liable for users’ defamatory comments in the comments section of those posts.