The top court in Malaysia fined Malaysiakini, a news outlet, for comments posted by readers. The ruling has raised the already growing concerns over the crackdown of free speech in the country.
The case against the news outlet was brought by the attorney general, who referred to five comments critical of the judiciary that were posted by readers. The AG also cited the outlet’s editor-in-chief Steven Gan in the contempt case. According to the AG, the comments undermined the public’s confidence in the judiciary.
“The impugned statements had gone far and wide… the content was spurious and reprehensible in nature and the content involved allegations of corruption which were unproven and untrue,” the judge said in the ruling.
The defense argued that Gan and the news outlet should not be punished as they were not the ones who wrote the comments. Furthermore, the news outlet deleted the comments once they were brought to its attention by authorities.
Malaysiakini is an independent news outlet that has often been accused by the government of criticizing the government in favor of the opposition. Last month, Gan said that since the news outlet was launched, 20 years ago, its journalists have been raided by the police, arrested, been victims of cyber attacks, labeled traitors, and even kicked out of press conferences.
Gan was not found guilty of any offense. However, the court fined Malaysiakini 500,000 ringgit (approximately $120,000), which was more than double the 200,000 ringgit fine that the prosecution was seeking.
After the ruling Gan expressed his discontentment, claiming that the ruling will force news outlets and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to moderate comments posted by third-parties.
“It will have a chilling effect on discussion of public issues in the country and delivers a body blow on our campaign to fight corruption in the country,” he said in a press conference.
The controversial ruling comes amid growing concerns about increasing free speech crackdown under the leadership of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. Independent news outlets like Malaysiakini might be forced to self-censor, which is worrying in a country where most news outlets are pro-establishment and affiliated with the state.
Rights advocacy groups and foreign governments, including the US, have raised concerns over the effect of the ruling on free speech, freedom of the press, and public discourse.
“The use of contempt of court laws to censor online debate and silence independent media is yet another example of the shrinking space for people to express themselves freely in the country,” the Malaysian chapter of Amnesty International said in a statement.
Others warned that the ruling might apply to social media platforms.
“I would think it is safe to say that you could similarly take issue with postings or comments on Facebook or Twitter. But it’s still premature and I think we should wait for the judgments,” said Malik Imtiaz, Malaysiakini’s lawyer.
Following the ruling, the news outlet launched a fundraiser to recover the fine. The whole amount was raised in less than four hours.