The chief editor of Malaysia’s leading independent news portal was charged in court on Friday over “offensive” content in a video featuring a prominent dissident, a move some observers say is aimed at intimidating the public on the eve of a huge anti-government rally.
Steven Gan, the chief editor and co-founder of the Malaysiakini portal, pleaded not guilty in a newly formed cyber court to four charges under the country’s Communication and Multimedia Act.
The video in question featured footage of a press conference with Khairuddin Abu Hassan, a former member of the ruling National Front coalition who quit his position over Prime Minister Najib Razak’s alleged role in the long-running scandal involving state-owned fund 1MDB.
Khairuddin demanded that attorney general Apandi Ali resign over his handling of the multi-billion-dollar scandal. Najib has denied wrongdoing but there has been an ongoing crackdown on his critics in recent months.
Premesh Chandran, chief executive of Malaysiakini, said the prosecution was unprecedented in the news outlet’s 17-year history.
“This is the first time that a Malaysiakini editorial staff has been charged over a news story,” Chandran told This Week in Asia.
“We believe the charge cannot stand. It is not a crime to report on a press conference. We will continue to report the news and views that matter while we fight this case,” he said.
Chandran – who co-founded the portal with Gan in 1999 – said he was expecting to be charged as well.
“Only Steven is formally charged. They have not served me with the legal notice as I am not in the country. They will probably serve it on me, once I return,” he said.
Bridget Welsh, a longtime Malaysian politics observer, said the surprise prosecution of the Malaysiakini journalists – they were served legal notice to appear in court on Thursday – was part of a crackdown ahead of a major anti-government demonstration in the capital Kuala Lumpur on Saturday.
Leading pro-democracy group Bersih is leading a rally to demand that Najib resign over his alleged links to the 1MDB scandal. Police on Friday afternoon raided the Bersih office near Kuala Lumpur.
And Prime Najib Razak earlier Friday said opposition parties were using the group as a proxy “to pressure the government through rallies”.
“The Najib government appears to be engaged in a crackdown with the charges on [Malaysiakini] one of the many tactics being adopted to create intimidation and fear before the Bersih 5 rally,” Welsh said.
Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the charges were “a serious violation of the freedom of the press and show the increasingly dictatorial style of Prime Minister Najib Razak and his government”.
“By using rights-abusing laws, ludicrous arguments, and special cyber courts, Malaysia appears to be aiming at shutting down the vibrant and diverse online news environment that has grown up because of the government’s control and censorship of the mainline print and TV media,” he said.
Malaysiakini is majority controlled by the portal’s co-founders Gan and Chandran.
Much of Malaysia’s mainstream media – including leading newspapers the New Straits Times and Utusan Malaysia – have close ownership and editorial links with the ruling coalition.