A news website was blocked and two local papers in Malaysia were suspended for three months after publishing investigative reports about a financial scandal involving the country’s prime minister.
Sarawak Report was blocked on July 19 based on an order issued by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) for allegedly posting “unverified accusations” about the financial dealings of 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB), a government-managed investment company. A few days later, the Malaysian Home Ministry (Kementrian Dalam Negeri – KDN) suspended the license of The Edge Financial Daily and The Edge Weekly, also for publishing stories and releasing documents on 1MDB.
The 1MDB issue refers to the questionable financial transactions of the company, which allegedly cost taxpayers billions of dollars. Early this month, the Wall Street Journal published a report suggesting that 700 million US dollars were transferred to the bank accounts of Prime Minister Najib Razak via the company. The government is currently probing the 1MDB as Najib denies the allegation.
The MCMC said in a statement that Sarawak Report was blocked “based on complaints and information received from the public.”
…the MCMC will not hesitate to take action against any party who falsely or inaccurately reports anything, or spreads misinformation which has not been verified.
But Sarawak Report has maintained that it did not do anything criminal and it urged the government to present evidence about 1MDB rather than censor news websites:
Sarawak Report will not be impeded in any way by this action in bringing out future information as and when its investigations deliver further evidence. This latest blow to media freedom only brings further discredit upon the present administration, who have proven unable to counter the evidence we have presented in any other way.
The blocking of Sarawak Report inspired many Malaysians to visit and ‘like’ its Facebook page. As of this writing, Sarawak Report now has 129,000 Facebook ‘likes’.
Meanwhile, the Home Ministry said it suspended two papers of The Edge because their 1MDB reports were allegedly “prejudicial or likely to be prejudicial to public order, security or likely to alarm public opinion or is likely to be prejudicial to public and national interest”.
The Edge decided to release more documents about 1MDB and hinted that it may be their last story on the issue because of the suspension order:
We have in this report, which is possibly the last on this subject, laid out all the key facts about what happened during the three-year business ties between 1MDB and PetroSaudi International
Our report is based on evidence corroborated by documents that include bank transfers and statements.
How can the work that we have done be deemed as a political conspiracy?
The Edge is set to file a judicial review in response to the suspension order.
The blocking of Sarawak Report and the suspension of two papers of The Edge were viewed by many as an attack on Malaysia’s media sector.
The Centre for Independent Journalism said the government should probe allegations of corruption instead of restricting free speech:
CIJ is also deeply concerned that there is a further clamp down on the discussion around a critical public interest issue which negates the public's ability to find out information, debate and form important opinions. CIJ renews its calls for a focus on investigating the actual issues at hand, and rejects further regulation and censorship on the internet as a way to manage the issue.
Malaysiakini, an alternative news website, published an editorial denouncing the action of the government, which it says has already shed its credibility:
For a leadership that has nothing to hide, silencing the media does nothing for its credibility. Instead, this suspension sends an indelible message to Malaysians that the government has indeed something big to hide.
The Foreign Correspondents Club of Malaysia noted that none of the 1MDB coverage government agencies are questioning has been challenged in court for being unfair or false:
To begin with, the very idea that the government can suspend or revoke printing licenses at a moment's notice needs to be done away with if the government is truly committed to press freedom. But to suspend a newspaper over reports that no one has been able to prove were false, is plainly contrary to the notion of natural justice.
Human rights group Suaram urged the government to uphold truth and transparency. The Lawyers for Liberty group said the suspension of Sarawak Report has a chilling effect on the press:
The authorities must be reminded that journalism is not a crime. Press freedom is an indispensable component of any modern and democratic society as it functions as a form of check and balance against government excesses. Such authoritarian behaviour unfortunately sends a chilling message to the press to self-censor on issues such as 1MDB or else they may invite retaliation.
It added that media reports like those published by The Edge should be encouraged to promote good governance:
The Edge’s coverage of the 1MDB scandal was Malaysia’s press’ finest hour. It was journalism at its best as they fearlessly investigated and reported on the massive and complex 1MDB scandal despite the overwhelming odds and threats against them. The Edge should be lauded for their outstanding journalism instead of being persecuted.
Local media groups are planning to hold a public rally on August 8 to condemn the government’s actions against critical media groups. Their five-group coalition is asking the public to protect free speech in the country by supporting the campaign for a strong and independent media.