Malaysian authorities should cease blocking the website of the Sarawak Report, a London-based news outlet critical of the government, Human Rights Watch has said.
The government should also drop politically motivated criminal investigations and related travel bans against outspoken members of parliament and journalists.
“Blocking a website and threatening critics with prosecution will not make the firestorm over alleged government corruption go away,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of engaging in repression, the Malaysian government should lift the bans and properly address the allegations swirling around it.”
Starting 19 July 2015, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission blocked access to the Sarawak Report website in Malaysia, claiming the site violated the Communications and Multimedia Act by publishing unverified information that could affect “national stability.”
Sarawak Report, along with other media organisations, had recently published allegations of massive corruption related to the government-owned 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) project, and that, according to the Wall Street Journal, bank accounts controlled by Prime Minister Najib Razak received unexplained government funds.
On 22 July, Malaysian authorities banned opposition Members of Parliament Tony Pua and Rafizi Ramli and the owner of the Edge Media Group, Tong Kooi, from leaving the country. The police confirmed that the three are being investigated under section 124 of the Penal Code for activities “detrimental to parliamentary democracy.” The maximum sentence if convicted is 20 years in prison.
While media freedom has long been under threat in Malaysia, successive governments have pledged not to censor the Internet as part of an effort to make Malaysia a technology hub in Asia.
The block appears to have backfired spectacularly, Human Rights Watch said, as it has led to a deluge of online criticism of the government’s actions and approximately 125,000 Facebook “likes” for Sarawak Report.
“By blocking the Sarawak Report website, the Malaysian government has undermined its claim for a more open Internet that is so crucial for commerce,” Adams said. “The government should try to find both its missing scruples and common sense and lift the ban.”