Malaysia: Malaysiakini contempt case will set a dangerous precedent for democracy

Malaysia’s Federal Court will hear the substantive contempt arguments against online news portal Malaysiakini and its editor-in-chief Steven Gan on July 13, after the court dismissed the application to set aside the proceedings. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) is disappointed the attorney-general is continuing with the prosecution of Malaysiakini and Gan.

Malaysiakini's editor-in-chief Steven Gan talks to reporters during a break of the contempt hearing in Federal Court. Credit: IFJ

The judgement delivered by Court of Appeal president justice Rohana Yusuf on July 2, on behalf of the seven member panel unanimously found attorney-general Idrus Harun had sufficiently established the facts to initiate the contempt proceedings against Malaysiakini and Gan, while confirming the federal court’s jurisdiction over the case.

Harun filed an ex-parte application on June 15 to start proceedings in relation to five readers’ comments in an article titled "CJ orders all courts to be fully operational from July 1." Idrus alleged the comments "clearly meant that the judiciary committed wrongdoings, is involved in corruption, does not uphold justice and compromised its integrity."

Defence counsel Malik Imtiaz Sarwar representing Malaysiakini and Gan, yesterday emphasised the five comments were removed within minutes of police alerting the news portal, noting Malaysiakini readers post an average of 2,000 comments a day. With this huge volume, the newsroom relies on its readers to flag offensive comments as part of a moderation process. Malik argued it was not disputed that neither Malaysiakini or Gan were involved in posting the comments and Malaysiakini was not aware of the comments before the news portal was alerted.

Malaysiakini is an IFJ and National Union of Journalists Malaysia (NUJM) project partner on a major European Union-funded Malaysian media reform project, Strengthening Malaysia’s Media for Change.

The IFJ is one of a number of media rights organisations watching the hearing, with Malaysian lawyer New Sin Yew acting as the IFJ’s independent legal observer

The IFJ said: Around the world it is standard practice for media companies to facilitate the discussion of citizens and journalists through enabling online discussion below articles. Modern journalism has expanded through the internet and the nuances of how people can interact with the news, democratising freedom of expression. The IFJ expresses its dismay with the attorney-general for continuing the prosecution against Malaysiakini and Steven Gan.”

Update on July 13, 2020: The Federal Court reserved the judgement in the proceedings against Malaysiakini and Steven Gan. No date has been set for the final determination to be delivered. 

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