SEAPA is alarmed by recent measures taken by the Malaysian government to suppress independent information and opinion related to a serious scandal involving a state-owned investment company.
These attempts appear to be intended to quell growing public condemnation of alleged fraud involving 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state-owned investment company, and its deals with the investment with the Middle Eastern oil company PetroSaudi International.
On 19 July, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) blocked the London-based whistle-blower Sarawak Report website from being accessed inside the country. The action sought to prevent the spread of allegedly false information about 1MDB, pending ongoing official investigation by the authorities.
The most serious action of Malaysian authorities is suspension on 24 July of two publications under The Edge Media Group in Malaysia, after the latter ran an exposé about the scandal which implicated the Malaysian Prime Minister.
The Home Ministry issued a suspension order against The Edge Weekly and the Financial Daily for reports about the investment controversy as a scheme to defraud billions from the country. The suspension order said that the reports were “prejudicial or likely to be prejudicial to public order, security or likely to alarm public opinion.”
The Home Ministry also threatened to withdraw the publishing permits of the two newspapers if they did not comply with the suspension order.
Later, nine individuals – mostly opposition politicians and activists – were prevented from traveling by immigration authorities for unspecified reasons. Among those barred were The Edge Media Group owner Tong Kooi Ong, and the former chief investment officer of 1MDB.
On 29 July, seven media workers – from The Edge, The Malaysia Insider and Malaysiakini – were barred from covering the press conference announcing a cabinet revamp, after the saga created a huge political fallout within the ruling party.
SEAPA condemns these actions by the Malaysian authorities as serious transgressions of press freedom and right to information. In particular, the blocking of the Sarawak Report website and three month suspension order against The Edge Weekly and the Financial Daily publications stand out as excessively disproportionate moves. These actions not only quell information about the controversy but also punishes other services of these media entities, and all of their employees.
SEAPA believes that such exposés that report about fraud and embezzlement are in the public interest and essential to the duty of the news media to society. Instead of being suppressed, these acts should be encouraged, as it contributes toward clean, accountable government, and participation of the citizenry in public affairs.
The actions of the Malaysian government contributes to a growing regional trend also seen in Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand in suppressing critical media means of lawsuits and broad regulatory powers. Suppressive action by authorities from these countries point to attempts to put the media under political control and prevent criticism of those in power.
Malaysia’s moves are particularly noteworthy since the government has moved from targeting individuals through widespread use of the Sedition Act since last year toward a more widespread clampdown of press freedom that affects a broader section of the public.
This clampdown in effect shielded implicated persons from accountability as public officials by prioritising the muzzling of information over taking decisive action to investigate possible fraud and corruption.
SEAPA calls on the Malaysian Government to immediately and unconditionally lift the suspension of The Edge Weekly and the Financial Daily, as well as unblock the Sarawak Report website.
At this critical time, authorities must guarantee press freedom to ensure the freer flow of information to foster citizen awareness about the political implications of the controversy.
The regional media and civil society must stand firmly against these moves by the Malaysian Government by supporting collective actions by Malaysian journalists to protest against media suppression in their country.