Freedom of the Press
In 2015, the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak utilized its powers under the Sedition Act to arrest and charge critical journalists, especially those that called for an explanation of a corruption scandal involving the state investment vehicle 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). Some journalists received threats or were physically attacked by members of the public during the year.
- Journalists were among dozens of government critics arrested in 2015 under the colonial-era Sedition Act, which the Federal Court upheld as constitutional in October.
- Reporting on the alleged misuse of the 1MDB state investment fund sparked criminal defamation proceedings against at least four news outlets, and two others were temporarily suspended.
- In July, the government blocked the London-based Sarawak Report news website for extensive reporting on the 1MDB scandal, reneging on a previous pledge that it would not censor the internet.
- Three Chinese reporters were attacked by members of the public while covering a riot at a shopping center, and a radio journalist received violent threats on social media after publishing a satirical video about efforts to implement the Islamic criminal code in Kelantan state.
Legal Environment: 26 / 30 (↓1)
Article 10 of the constitution guarantees freedom of expression, but it also allows for a host of limitations on this right. The 1948 Sedition Act and harsh criminal defamation laws are regularly used to impose restrictions on the press and other critics of the government. A litany of arrests under the Sedition Act began in January 2015, when police detained human rights lawyer Eric Paulsen for a Twitter post in which he criticized a federal agency managing Islamic affairs. In February, the Federal Court upheld opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s 2014 conviction and five-year prison sentence for sodomy, and a government crackdown on the political opposition escalated, encompassing journalists and political commentators. In March 2015, three editors from the online news portal the Malaysian Insider were arrested under the Sedition Act, reportedly because a council of state governors and sultans, the Conference of Rulers, disputed one of their reports; the outlet was known for its reporting on the 1MDB scandal. In April, the High Court in Kuala Lumpur charged political cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Haque, known as Zunar, for implying in comments posted on Twitter that political pressure on judges had produced Anwar Ibrahim’s conviction. Zunar faces 9 charges under the act, up to 43 years in prison, and a considerable fine.
In October, the Federal Court ruled that the Sedition Act is constitutional, responding to a challenge by Azmi Sharom, a law professor charged with sedition in 2014 for comments he made to the Malay Mail Online regarding a political crisis in the state of Selangor. Amendments to the Sedition Act were approved in April 2015, but had yet to take effect at the year’s end because they had not been officially published. Under the amendments, the act no longer defines criticism of the judiciary or the government as seditious. However, they also codified greater penalties for violation of the act, raising the possible jail term for general sedition to 7 years from the previous 3; moreover, it codified a penalty of 20 years’ imprisonment for seditions actions that involve property destruction or physical harm to a person, and contained provisions that would permit the government to order the removal from websites of material deemed seditious, and to ban those deemed of propagating such material from accessing electronic devices.
Investigative news reports that linked the unfolding corruption scandal involving 1MDB to Prime Minister Najib in 2015 prompted several defamation charges. Najib sued two opposition-aligned news portals for reporting on the fund, naming the editor and managing director of Harakah Daily in one complaint, and the owner of Media Rakyat along with an opposition lawmaker in another. The prime minister’s lawyers also told local journalists they were exploring avenues to sue the Wall Street Journal, which reported in July that Malaysian investigators had traced $700 million from 1MDB to Najib’s personal bank accounts. In November, the government raided the offices of online news portals Malaysiakini and the Star Online. The events came after the attorney general’s chambers filed a defamation complaint in response to articles they had published about the reassignment of a deputy prosecutor in the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. A defamation case that Najib initiated in 2014 against Malaysiakini and two of its editors over critical comments by readers in the portal’s “Your Say” column is ongoing.
Although the opposition-controlled states of Selangor and Penang passed freedom of information laws in 2011, Malaysia has no federal law with such guarantees, and officials remain reluctant to share even innocuous information with journalists—including the content of proposed legislation—for fear of being charged under the Official Secrets Act.
The Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) gives the communications and multimedia minister a large measure of discretionary authority over broadcast licenses. The ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition reviewed existing media licensing and censorship laws in 2012, and a resulting amendment to the 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) repealed a provision that had required all publishers and printing firms to obtain an annual operating permit. However, the revision left all other restrictions in place, including the government’s authority to grant or deny license applications and to revoke the required licenses at any time without judicial review. The Home Affairs Ministry may also issue “show cause” letters, which require newspapers to explain certain articles or face suspension or revocation of their permits. In July 2015, the Home Ministry suspended permits for news publications the Edge Weekly and the Edge Financial Daily for three months, saying that their reporting on the 1MDB fund had prejudiced public order. The High Court overturned the suspensions in September.
Political Environment: 24 / 40 (↓1)
State outlets tend to reflect government views. While the Malaysian government is formally committed to a policy of refraining from direct online censorship through Section 3(3) of the CMA and the Multimedia Bill of Guarantees, authorities blocked a number of websites in 2015. In July, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) blocked the website of the London-based Sarawak Report, which had reported extensively on the 1MDB allegations; it remained inaccessible in Malaysia at the year’s end. The Commission also threatened to block websites covering the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (Bersih), which held a peaceful, 34-hour anticorruption rally in August. The Malaysia Chronicle, an online news aggregator, was apparently blocked in October. The MCMC did not confirm the block, but visitors to the site were informed it was “not available in Malaysia as it violates the national law(s).” It too remained inaccessible in Malaysia at the year’s end. Foreign print media are occasionally censored or banned.
Self-censorship is common due to the legal and economic environments. Physical harassment and intimidation are usually less of a danger for journalists than arbitrary arrest or threats of legal action, though incidents are occasionally reported. In March 2015, Aisyah Tajuddin, a journalist with BFM Radio, received violent threats from members of the public on social media after she produced a satirical video questioning political efforts to implement the Islamic criminal code in Kelantan state. In July, two photographers and a reporter from separate Chinese news organizations were assaulted by members of the public while covering a riot at a shopping plaza in Kuala Lumpur. Government officials, including Prime Minister Najib, tried to use details of the incident to justify calls for stricter regulation of social media, an idea that was greeted with dismay by media freedom advocates.
Economic Environment: 17 / 30
Although the media industry is dominated by private owners, the majority of print and broadcast outlets are controlled either by political parties in the ruling coalition or by businesses with political connections to the government. The largest media conglomerate, Media Prima, owns half of the Malay and English-language newspapers, as well as many television channels; it is believed to be closely linked to the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the leading party of the BN. Huaren Management, which is associated with another BN member, the Malaysian Chinese Association, monopolizes Chinese-language newspapers. Despite the BN’s insistence that mainstream newspapers are impartial, the owners’ political and business interests often lead to self-censorship by journalists.
With around 71 percent of the population accessing the internet in 2015, Malaysia is home to many news websites and blogs that offer competing points of view. Although not all internet news organizations are politically independent—many have suspected affiliations with politicians from either the opposition or the ruling coalition—they offer an array of political opinions that cannot be found in the traditional media. Social-networking sites such as Facebook flourished in 2015, hosting vigorous debates on political issues and government policies. The internet continues to be the place to challenge corruption and raise human rights concerns, although existing laws require bloggers to tread carefully.