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Media crackdown puts freedom of speech in jeopardy

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A new kind of censorship sweeping Malaysia is threatening journalists, critics, whistle-blowers and online news sites. 

The Muhyiddin Yassin government, which came to power in March this year, has made it clear that it will not tolerate any criticism or dissent.

The new strategy is to delegitimise and criminalise those who are seen as exposing, investigating or questioning anything the government is doing.

It’s recent crackdowns on the media and freedom of speech are akin to actions taken by authoritarian regimes such as Turkey, Venezuela and the Philippines.  

The new government coalition, Perikatan Nasional, includes the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) which was voted out of power in 2018, following a massive corruption scandal. It had previously held power for over 60 years and was infamous for crackdowns of the type now being revived. 

These actions reflect a nationalistic and race-related agenda, and are indicative of a government which holds a slim majority and seems insecure and defensive. Internal frictions within the governing parties may also cause problems for coalition’s future as a government.

One of the tactics used by the government to stifle dissent is the use of online trolls. The government uses a systematic campaign of “cybertroopers” who attack critics, the opposition, journalists, new-sites, and activists.

This creates a climate of fear and intimidation. 

The government is also using licensing regulations as a way of controlling the work of media organisations.

Earlier this month, six Al Jazeera journalists were interrogated in relation to a TV news program about immigrant workers (Locked Up in Malaysia’s Lockdown, aired 3 July 2020).  Al Jazeera has also been targeted in the questioning of its legal status in Malaysia, despite its regional office in Kuala Lumpur operating for nearly a decade.

In the case of Al Jazeera’s Locked Up news program, it was arbitrarily reclassified by the state’s film body, FINAS, as a documentary. This sudden reclassification of video work, using an obscure interpretation of laws, now threatens the future work of all media organisations in Malaysia, with all news reports now apparently requiring a licence.

The book Rebirth: Reformasi, Resistance and Hope in New Malaysia, edited by Kean Wong with contributions from journalists and political analysts (published by Gerak Budaya), has also fallen foul of the government. It was banned on 1 July under the Printing Presses and Publications Act, ostensibly because its cover artwork allegedly denigrates the national coat of arms (Jata Negara). Despite the fact that the artwork in question has been seen publicly in a 2014 exhibition, police investigations into the book’s cover artwork have now expanded to questioning the publisher, the editor and contributors. 

Among those interviewed is South China Morning Post (SCMP) journalist and book contributor Tashny Sukarmaran, who was also targeted by Malaysian Police in May, under the Penal Code, for her reporting and Twitter posts about a raid on immigrants in Kuala Lumpur’s COVID-19 red zones. Seven Malaysiakini online news journalists who authored chapters of the book have also been questioned by Malaysian police, as has the artist who painted the original exhibition artwork featured on the cover, Shia Yih Ying. 

The police are threatening to charge those involved in the book’s publication with alleged ‘sedition’. 

According to the New Mandala website, recent media reports have quoted Criminal Investigation Department deputy director (Investigation/Legal), Mior Faridalathrash Wahid, as saying “investigations revealed some articles in the book are seditious”. They’ve also reported that “the investigation papers will be handed over to the deputy public prosecutor next week for further action.”   

The crackdown in Malaysia follows a pattern seen across South East Asia. 

A glaring example is the conviction in June of prominent journalist Maria Ressa for “cyberlibel” in the Philippines. 

A former investigative reporter for CNN for two decades, Ressa is the co-founder and head of the Rattler news site, which has been highly critical of President Rodrigo Duturte. She is appealing the conviction but if unsuccessful could face a possible lengthy prison sentence of up to 6 years.

Ressa also faces tax evasion charges, which she also denies.  Media watchdogs and human rights groups claim this is part of a broader government strategy to 

send a clear message to the media and critics: do not investigate the government or write stories about corruption, or human rights violations associated with the President’s war on drugs. 

As in Malaysia, there’s a well-orchestrated social media trolling campaign against Ressa, other Rappler journalists and critics of the government. 

In another blow to the media, top broadcaster ABS-CBN failed to renew its 25-year licence because it refused to run Duterte’s election campaign commercials

Vivien Altman is ABC Alumni’s International Co-ordinator

Steven Gan –

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