Cease harassing Malaysiakini, urges press freedom watchdog

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The Red Shirts protesting outside Malaysiakini - Photograph: Yusof Mat Isa/Malay Mail

Malaysia’s government should cease harassing independent news site Malaysiakini, the Committee to Protect Journalists has said.

Police have opened a criminal investigation into the website, and a government-linked pressure group has threatened to “tear down” the website’s office.

Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar informed Malaysiakini’snews editor RK Anand by text message on 3 November 2016 that police had launched an investigation into the news group’s financing under section 124C of the Penal Code, a provision that criminalises activities authorities deem “detrimental to parliamentary democracy,” news reports said.

Maximum penalties under the law allow for 15-year prison sentences, the reports said.

Khalid told the Malay Mail Online that Malaysiakini staff could be arrested under the 2012 Security Offences Special Measures Act, which carries the death penalty, contingent on the findings of the investigation. A special team, led by the federal Criminal Investigations Department, will be formed to conduct the probe, Malaysiakini reported.

The website’s staff have not been summoned by police, according to the site’s founder and editor-in-chief, Steven Gan, who spoke with CPJ by telephone.

“The notion that Malaysiakini’s independent reporting could somehow be a threat, rather than boon, to Malaysia’s democracy shows how contorted the government’s priorities have become,” CPJ Senior South East Asia representative Shawn Crispin said. “We call on police to stop this politicised probe and for the government to cease threatening independent journalists.”

The investigation comes amid local media reports that the US-based Open Society Foundations provided funds to Malaysiakini and local nongovernmental organisations, including the Bersih 2.0 group, which staged a mass rally on 19 November to call on Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to step down over fraud allegations involving a state investment fund. Malaysiakini broke several stories on the politically sensitive scandal.

READ MORE:  When the government fears the people, it suppresses freedom of speech

Gan told CPJ that Malaysiakini discloses its funding sources on its website and that the website received a one-off OSF grant in 2011 to produce video documentaries.

A pro-government group known as the “red shirts” on 5 November called for Malaysiakini’s closure in a street protest held in front of the website’s Kuala Lumpur office, news reports said.

In a 3 November meeting with Malaysiakini editors, the group’s leader, Jamal Yunos, threatened to “tear down” the website’s office building if it did not sufficiently explain the purpose of the Open Soeiety Foundations grant. The protest was staged without incident, with a heavy police presence, news reports said.

Ruling United Malays National Organisation politicians blamed George Soros, founder and chairman of the Open Society Foundations, for contributing to Malaysia’s sharp economic downturn during the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis through his hedge fund’s short selling of the local currency, the ringgit, in international money markets, reports said.

On 15 October, the red-shirt group assaulted, threatened, and forced three reporters from The Star newspaper to delete video footage they had taken of a confrontation between the red shirts and rival Bersih 5 supporters, according to press reports. The assailants repeatedly asked the reporters from The Star if any of them were affiliated with Malaysiakini, the reports said.

CPJ research shows that journalists frequently come under attack while covering political street demonstrations in Malaysia.

CPJ honoured Steven Gan with an International Press Freedom Award in 2000.

CPJ is an independent, non-profit organisation that works to safeguard press freedom worldwide.

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