Malaysian PM Sues News Site for Libel

Prime Minister Najib Razak. Flickr photo from APEC 2013 (CC License)

Prime Minister Najib Razak. Flickr photo from APEC 2013 (CC License)

Malaysiakini, an independent online newspaper in Malaysia, became the country’s first media organization to be sued for libel by the Prime Minister.

PM Najib Razak is suing Malaysiakini over comments made by readers in response to two “Yoursay” articles published on May 14, 2014. Yoursay is a section in Malaysiakini where comments on a particular news article are compiled into one news story. 

Prime Minister Najib's lawyers pointed to a handful of specific comments on the two articles, entitled “A case of the PM reaping what he sows” and “How much will Najib spend to keep Terengganu?”

Anonymous #06188481: He has many skeletons in his closet. Therefore, he has no moral right to right whatever wrong done by his cabinet ministers or others for fear the same would exposed whatever skeletons he has been hiding.

In response to the defamation suit, Malaysiakini editor-in-chief Steven Gan said the online portal would not retreat from the challenge. “We intend to fight the suit vigorously,” he said.

He added that Najib and his party could have taken advantage of the right of reply law to answer the ‘unfair’ comments made by readers without resorting to legal actions.

Josh Hong made a similar point when he reminded Najib that the entire state machinery is at his disposal to “rebut and even distort whatever that [sic] is reported by online portals.” He said the libel suit exposed Najib as a “pseudo-democrat”:

…the public should welcome Najib’s lawsuit, for it will once and for all shatter his image as a pseudo-democrat.

I would say: Bring it on Najib, but make sure you will not be dodging critical questions in court. After all, it is you and your government that will be put on trial for the whole world to see, your advantage of having some malleable judges on your side notwithstanding.

Writer RK Anand is proud to be part of Malaysiakini:

Since its inception, Malaysiakini has been a trailblazer, chalking up numerous awards both here and abroad. It has survived numerous trials and tribulations, threats and lawsuits.

So the premier's lawsuit looks set to add another feather to its cap, making Malaysiakini the first media organisation in the nation's history to put a prime minister in the witness stand.

As in the words of Malaysiakini's chief editor Fathi Aris Omar, “See you in court, Mr Prime Minister.”

Nathaniel Tan affirmed Malaysiakini’s reputation as a critical media portal:

I often refer to Malaysiakini as the Grande Old Dame of Malaysian online publishing – it was there first, when there was basically no one else, and I like to think that flawed though it is, it has retained through the years and decades a high standard of journalistic integrity and faithfulness to its mission.

He also underscored the uniqueness of the Yoursay section where ordinary Malaysians are given the chance to express their thoughts:

I am not a close follower of the Yoursay section of Malaysiakini, but there is no doubt that it has for many years been a place like few others for Malaysians to vent and publish views which may otherwise never see publication – especially in any mainstream press.

The Yoursay section is also unique even amongst online publications. To the best of my knowledge, no other news portal affords such prominent coverage to the voice of the people, emphasising that what is worth reading is not only what journalists and editors decide you should read, but what everyday people have to say as well.

Tan reviewed the controversial comments that allegedly defamed Najib and observed that they were probably popular views shared by many people. “They merely gave a space for readers to say what hundreds of thousands of Malaysians are probably saying in coffee shops all across the country,” he wrote.

Malaysiakini has received a lot of support from media freedom advocates. Aliran, a human rights group, views the libel suit as “tantamount to instilling fear in other alternative media and their concerned readers”:

By not taking up Malaysiakini’s offer of a right of reply, Najib and company only reinforce the suspicion that the powers that be are inclined to muzzle the news portal, which is known for its relentless pursuit of truth without fear or favour.

Benjamin Ismaïl of the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific desk said the legal action has further undermined the state of free speech in the country:

This libel action is disastrous for freedom of information in Malaysia because it means that any news outlet can be sued whenever it allow its readers to express their views. We urge the prime minister to reverse course and let people criticize him.

Amnesty International condemned the suit as another attack on the right to freedom of expression in Malaysia:

The use of defamation laws with the effect of inhibiting legitimate criticism of government or public officials violates the right to freedom of expression.

Civil defamation suits against media have been used in the past by government officials and politicians with the effect of stifling political dissent and curtailing freedom of expression. The latest lawsuit marks yet another attack on the right to freedom of expression in Malaysia, where for years peaceful political activists and human rights defenders have been arrested and detained under a range of draconian laws which do not comply with international human rights law and standards.

Alyaa Alhadjri thinks Najib filed the suit to appease the hardliners in his party:

Using any kind of force to silence a dissenting voice or opinion is a classic tactic often adopted by “bullies” who are unable to form a convincing argument or are trying to show off their might and power.

In filing the suit, Najib has proven that he is not interested to engage with any critics but would rather use the opportunity to recapture lost support from within his own party.

Najib is head of a political coalition which has been in power since the 1950s. However, the ruling party has received fewer number of votes and seats in recent elections even if it continues to dominate the parliament.

Case management of the libel suit is set for June 18.

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