Don’t stop the presses

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Malaysia’s Ministry of Home Affairs should stop threatening to close opposition party newspapers, reverse bans on politically sensitive books, and end harassment of independent journalists, the New York-based Human Rights Watch has said.

The government should also repeal the 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Act, which gives the Home Affairs Ministry effective censorship over all publication content, the group said.

“Malaysia’s leaders hardly ever miss a chance to harass or shut down opposition papers by invoking national unity or public order, or claiming that official secrets are being revealed,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But letting political expediency trump the right to free expression insults all Malaysians who want a more open society, no matter their party affiliation.”

The government effectively suspended indefinitely publication of Suara Keadilan, the paper of the opposition People’s Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Rakyat, or PKR), when the home affairs minister failed to renew the paper’s license to publish, which expired on 30 June 2010. Under the Printing Presses and Publications Act, licences must be renewed annually, and the home minister’s discretion to grant, revoke, or suspend a license is “absolute” and not subject to judicial review.

The government agreed to renew the licence for Harakah, published by the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia or Pas), after it expired on 7 July, but with the onerous conditions that the newspaper may only be sold at party offices and must be clearly labelled on the front page as being for party members only.

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On his first day in office in April 2009, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak had lifted bans on Suara Keadilan and Harakah. He said later that Malaysia needs “a media … that is empowered to responsibly report what they see without fear of consequence”.

Suara Keadilan’s present difficulties may stem from the paper’s allegation in its 21-29 June edition that the government Federal Land Development Authority (Felda), which has managed a massive resettlement program for rural Malays, was bankrupt. The government sent Suara Keadilan a series of “show cause” letters seeking an explanation of the article, and rejected the paper’s replies as unsatisfactory. On 11 July, after PKR published its newspaper, usually a weekly, as Keadilan, a one-off non-serialised issue for which a permit is not necessary, the home minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, threatened a “physical shutdown.” The Home Affairs Ministry also filed a criminal complaint alleging that Keadilan published a “secret document” in violation of the Official Secrets Act, which provides the authorities wide discretion to classify documents.

In the action against Harakah, the Home Affairs Ministry faulted Pas, its publishers, for delays in submitting the requisite eight copies of published papers to the ministry, for selling the newspaper to non-Pas members, and for circulating it beyond the boundaries agreed to.

The government also moved against the third member of the opposition coalition, the Democratic Action Party (DAP). On 13 July, the Home Affairs Ministry delivered two show-cause letters to the office of The Rocket, DAP’s party paper, to explain why it continues to publish Chinese and English language editions when their permits have expired. Similiar enquiries were not made about The Rocket’s Malay edition, the permit for which has also expired.

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Authorities also called in the editors of Suara Perkasa, published by Perkasa, a conservative Malay rights non-governmental organisation. The paper was issued a warning to not do anything to upset national unity. In its inaugural edition, the paper had recommended use of the Internal Security Act to arrest Deputy Education Minister Wee Ka Siong over scholarship awards that it said threatened other awards set aside for Malays and indigenous people.

“Newspapers should not have to answer to the government for what they are saying,” Robertson said. “It is for its own partisan political purposes that the Malaysian government tries to browbeat the opposition press into silence.”

In addition to the crackdown on party and non-governmental organisations:

·         On July 9, Hishammuddin announced a new committee tasked with stopping the spread of “false news.” He said that “if lies and false news churned out by irresponsible people continue unabated, these irresponsible people will think they are right while the public will continue to be deceived”. Among the items for discussion is a “definition of false news” and new legislation.

·         Also on 9 July, the police arrested Badrul Hisham, a PKR leader popularly known as Chegubard, because his blog postings on Malaysia’s paramount king and its royal institution were allegedly seditious. He is out on bail while the investigation continues.

·         On 29 June, the Securities Commission called in four journalists concerning their recent news stories about trading in certain shares. Securities Commission rules do not permit reporters to refuse to answer questions even to protect sources or counter self-incrimination and set out punishments of a fine up to RM1 million (US$312,256), or five years in prison, or both. All statements made during questioning are admissible as evidence in court.

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·         On 24 June, the Home Affairs Ministry banned 1Funny Malaysia, a book of political cartoons. Malaysiakini, the web-based newspaper whose subsidiary Kinibooks published 1Funny Malaysia, plans to challenge the ban in court. Months earlier, Home Ministry officials confiscated hundreds of copies of 1Funny Malaysia for “study and review”.

·         In April, Joshua Wong, a senior TV producer for “Editor’s Time,” a talk show on NTV7 that often features political discussion, resigned in the wake of what he described as “overzealous self-censorship and government interference.”

“The government uses every trick in the book to block news it doesn’t want to reach the public,” Robertson said. “It’s appalling that Malaysia, newly elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council, cannot seem to honour a bedrock human rights principle, the right to the free exchange of information and ideas.”

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