The case relates to third-party comments by Malaysiakini readers on a story published in June 2020, which were alleged to have insulted the judiciary. The February 19 verdict found the online news publisher guilty under Section 114A of the Evidence Act (Amendment) (No.2) 2012, while its editor-in-chief Steven Gan was acquitted.
Malaysiakini was initially alerted by the police of five contemptuous comments left by readers in the comments section of a news article on thejudiciary’s decision to reopen its courts. In line with international journalism practice, the comments were immediately taken down by the news publisher. Despite this, Malaysia’sAttorney General initiated contempt of court proceedings against the site and its editor-in-chief the same month.
The final judgement found Malaysiakini to liable for the comments and therefore presumes Malaysiakini as the publisher of the comments in question.
Following the court’s decision, Gan described the verdict as having “a tremendous chilling impact on discussions of issues of public interest” in Malayasia. “It (the verdict) delivers a body blow to our continual campaign to fight corruption, among others,” Gan said. “I think the decision made against us and the hefty fine that has been put against us is perhaps an attempt to not only punish us but shut us down. I am terribly disappointed. What crime has Malaysiakini committed that we are forced to pay RM500,000 (USD 120,000) when there are individuals charged with abuse of power for millions and billions who are walking free?"
The Attorney-General earlier sought for the fine to be RM200,000 (USD 48,000), while Malaysiakini’s legal team had sought a maximum RM30,000 (USD 7,200) fine.
In response to the verdict and hefty fine, Malaysiakini launched an online fundraising campaign on their website in order to raise revenue to pay the fine ahead of the three-day window required for payment. The funds were raised through a massive public response that saw the target reached within six hours.
The NUJM described it as a “sad day for Malaysia’s press freedom”. The IFJ is one of a number of media rights organisations that have closely followed the legal proceedings, with Malaysian lawyer New Sin Yew acting as the IFJ’s independent legal observer.
Media freedom groups in the country have repeatedly raised concerns on the overreach of Section 114A of the Evidence Act. The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), said the law makes individuals and those who administer, operate or provide spaces for online community forums, blogging and hosting services, liable for content published through its services.
The NUJM said: “Not only will the decision have a tremendous impact on discussions of issues of public interest but it will also deliver a blow to the new media landscape, journalists and media owners. It will also have a major impact on discussions of issues of public interest, bring about more avenues for media censorship and delivers a distasteful impact on the media’s continual campaign to fight corruption.”
The NUJM and IFJ said critical views were a sign of a strong and healthy institution. Yet the imposition and overreach of the law could drive the removal of online comments, thus further restricting the public’s right to engage in critical debate.
The IFJ said: “The Malaysian Federal Court decision is a clear attack on journalism in Malaysia. The efforts of both Malaysiakini and Steven Gan in both strengthening and furthering modern journalism are respected both regionally and globally in giving Malaysians access to credible news journalism through a politically dark period for the country. Today’s decision sets a dangerous precedent for both the freedom of press and the freedom of speech and concerningly signals a sad return to a more authoritarian state.