SINGAPORE – Advocates are sounding the alarm over a rapid deterioration of press freedom conditions in Malaysia following a series of police raids, arrests and interrogations of whistle-blowers and reporters who risk being jailed for years under draconian legislation often used to target the media.
Six journalists from Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera are among those currently under criminal investigation for alleged sedition, defamation and transmitting offensive content after the network aired on July 3 a documentary chronicling Malaysia’s controversial treatment of undocumented migrants during the coronavirus pandemic.
In a separate case, Steven Gan, the editor-in-chief of the news organization Malaysiakini, widely considered the most popular independent media portal in Malaysia, faces contempt of court charges in connection with reader remarks posted in the comments section of an article that authorities said had threatened public confidence in the judiciary.
“We are already seeing a pattern where media freedoms are really being affected purely through the way certain media outlets or journalists are being targeted,” said Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) executive director Wathshlah Naidu. “This pattern can already show that there is a certain concerted effort by the government.”
Observers say the escalating crackdown on media and critical expression is driven by leadership insecurity. Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin presides over a fragile governing alliance with the slimmest parliamentary majority in the country’s history, and analysts are divided over whether his premiership will survive snap polls that could be called in 2021.
If Muhyiddin moves to consolidate power in bolder and more controversial ways in the months ahead, through the persecution of his political opponents, for instance, the suppression and intimidation of critical media and dissenting voices would give him greater room to maneuver while his administration’s nationalist messaging drowns out alternative views.
What makes the worsening climate for journalism more distressing for advocates is the fact that Malaysia had only a short time ago been heralded for its efforts to improve media freedoms following the country’s first-ever democratic change of government in May 2018, which saw overall conditions for reporting improve considerably.
As part of its reform agenda, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition led by former premier Mahathir Mohamad set out to rescind and amend various laws pertaining to freedom of expression that previous governments led by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) had used to bring dissidents, independent media and political opposition to heel.
Increased pluralism and less self-censorship were evident under PH rule, while journalists and media outlets that were silenced or persecuted for exposing high-level corruption that had, for example, established the basis for ex-leader Najib Razak’s recent criminal conviction, were able to resume their duties with less fear of harassment.
This turnaround was particularly striking to many observers given that Mahathir, UMNO’s prime minister from 1981 to 2003, had himself cracked down on political opponents, including journalists, ordered the closure of newspapers and wielded the now repealed Internal Security Act (ISA) to impose constraints on the press.
In a global index measuring press freedom published in April by non-profit group Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Malaysia ranked 101 out of 180 countries, the highest score in Southeast Asia. Reflecting press freedom gains under PH’s tenure, it had moved up the ranking by 22 places, charting the biggest improvement among all 180 countries rated.
Mahathir’s government won plaudits last October for repealing a law passed during Najib’s administration that made sharing “fake news” a crime punishable by up to six years in jail. Broader promises to defang Malaysia’s draconian legislation, including the infamous Sedition Act, however, were unmet by the time PH rule ended abruptly in February after just 22 months in power.
Muhyiddin took office on March 1 at the helm of Perikatan Nasional (PN), a loose coalition government buttressed by UMNO. Critics and observers say recent press freedom gains have been significantly rolled back under his unelected watch, with the Covid-19 crisis serving as a pretext to limit reporters’ access to events and newsmakers.
“Day-to-day reporting has changed somewhat since the change in government, and has sort of been exacerbated by Covid-19. Using physical distancing as the rationale, the government has largely avoided facing the press in its first few months, and in some cases continues to do so,” said Zurairi AR, assistant news editor and columnist at Malay Mail.
“Media outfits that are not state-owned remain barred from some government events, especially the regular press briefings. The PM and most of the ministers have largely avoided press conferences, choosing to instead hold ‘special addresses’ broadcast through TV, making conversation with the government largely one-way,” he added.
The Covid-19 pandemic, Zurairi observed, had also “presented the government with a nice opportunity to double down on ‘fake news’, since there is an undeniable need to present facts when it comes to combating the pandemic. But we have also seen this term being abused much more towards critics, and especially towards critical media.”
“During PH, reporting was a breeze in many ways. We had access to data, statistics, ministers would reply with texts on pressing issues,” said Tashny Sukumaran, the South China Morning Post’s Kuala Lumpur correspondent who was questioned by police in May for her reporting and social media posts on the mass arrests of hundreds of undocumented migrants during Malaysia’s coronavirus lockdown.
“Anecdotally, it’s now harder to obtain data or comments on issues unless you catch these lawmakers at places like Parliament or events,” she told Asia Times.
Sukumaran was questioned by police again in July in connection with an article she wrote on the 2018 general election which was published in a book, Rebirth: Reformasi, Resistance and Hope in New Malaysia, that the country’s Home Ministry recently banned. She has yet to be charged with an offense.
“The government believes it can shore up support and simultaneously solidify its grasp on power by making nationalism a central plank of its platform while silencing dissent. But it’s also just a throwback to yesteryear – it worked then, is the rationale, so why won’t it work now?” said Sukumaran.
“The key difference, however, is that many people enjoyed progressive freedoms under PH and it’s hard to undo that.”
Daniel Bastard, RSF’s Asia-Pacific director, said the intensifying crackdown on media under Muhyiddin was a “sad reminder” of the fraught press freedom conditions under Najib’s rule. “Several Malaysian journalists told RSF they just don’t dare to cover some subjects as they would feel enabled to do under Mahathir’s government,” he said.
“The environment has dramatically changed, and it seems self-censorship has become the new normal again,” added Bastard. “[RSF has] sent a letter to Malaysian authorities asking them to follow the encouraging steps taken by the previous administration, otherwise the country’s score will deteriorate in our World Press Freedom Index.”
Anticipating a media clampdown following the political transition from Mahathir to Muhyiddin, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists sent a letter addressed to the premier in April calling on his then new government to repeal various overly broad and repressive laws, such as the Communications and Multimedia Act, and champion press freedom amid the global health crisis.
Recent developments suggest Malaysia’s press freedom ranking will slide. On August 5, Malaysian police raided the Kuala Lumpur offices of Al Jazeera and two local broadcasters that aired a documentary titled “Locked up in Malaysia’s Lockdown” produced by the Qatari network’s Asia-Pacific current affairs program, 101 East.
Mohamad Rayhan Kabir, a Bangladeshi man who criticized the country’s treatment of undocumented migrants during an interview with 101 East, was arrested last month and denied access to his lawyers. Authorities said he would be “deported and blacklisted from entering Malaysia forever” without specifying whether he had committed a crime.
Police have sent the findings of their probe into Al Jazeera to the Attorney General’s Chambers, which will decide whether to bring charges against the network’s staff. The government denies any mistreatment of undocumented migrants who were rounded up en masse earlier this year and maintain that the documentary tarnished the country’s image.
Probing whether mass raids undertaken by Malaysian police against migrants were motivated by “racism” or public health practicality, the documentary polarized local audiences and led to abuse and death threats being hurled at Al Jazeera’s staff. The network said its reporting was impartial and it “strongly refutes” accusations against the program.
“Part of the government’s propaganda, I would say their main rhetorical narrative, is that everything out there is disinformation or ‘fake news,’” said CIJ’s Naidu. “Hence, the reason why they have to adopt these measures, including charging people, is to curb the spread of fake news. This is backtracking on the previous government’s commitments.”
Naidu says a conviction against Malaysiakini would have major implications in that the ruling would set a precedent for whether media entities will be held legally responsible for third-party comments in the future. Federal prosecutors argue that the news portal itself is presumed to have committed contempt for by providing the platform for reader comments.
“Do not shoot the messenger, unless you prove that the messenger is the creator of the message being delivered,” said Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, defense counsel for Malaysiakini and its editor-in-chief Gan, during court proceedings last month. The panel of judges hearing the case said they will issue their verdict at an unspecified later date.
Gan has vowed to vigorously fight the contempt charge. If found guilty, he could be jailed and fined; there are no legal limits to the penalties for contempt of court. The subscription-based digital publication maintains that it deleted five comments deemed as critical of the country’s judiciary within minutes of being alerted by Malaysian police.
While PH was in power, a group of Malaysian media organizations led by Malaysiakini began negotiations with authorities on establishing an independent “media council” to regulate the news industry, which would aim to raise journalistic standards and take the concession and revocation of media licenses out of the government’s hands.
“In the context of Malaysia, we have a wide range of laws that could be used to silence dissenting voices,” said Naidu. “This is why we need a media council, which would have a grievance mechanism to deal with content regulation, complaints and allegations. Hence, it would limit the use of these repressive laws.”
A media council pro-tem committee was established earlier this year with the task of drafting a bill that would establish the council and its functions in law, but Naidu said it is unclear whether Muhyiddin’s government would support its passage. “A public outcry is the only thing that is possibly going to slow down the government,” she told Asia Times.