[Malaysia] Media restrictions continue ahead of elections

The following are excerpts from the CIJ report “Media and Internet Freedom in Malaysia 2017” 

 

The state continues to exercise control over media and internet freedom through legislation. Restrictions to media freedom imposed by the state in 2017 included investigation of journalists whose reports were deemed to be inaccurate and sensational; and outlets investigated for violations under Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) and Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA). Defamation lawsuits continue to be filed against media companies and its personnel have been used as a tool to ensure responsible journalism and media accountability. The state continues to use CMA, Penal Code and Sedition Act to penalise politicians, activists, bloggers, and citizens for content. Discussions of race and religion continue to be restricted, and censored.

Malaysia’s press freedom ranking remains low. In 2017, Malaysia ranked 144 out of 180 countries1, although it came in at 1462 the previous year according to Reporters Without Borders. Malaysia has been marked as Not Free for Freedom of the Press 20173 by Freedom House, with a score of 69 out of 100 (100 being the worst), a further drop from 67 points in 20164. The legal environment for press freedom remains significantly poor with a record of 26 points out of 30 in 20175. On internet freedom in 2017, Freedom House rated Malaysia as partly free with a score of 44 out of 1006, a one-point improvement from 20167.

The extent of media and internet freedom in Malaysia is examined in this report, informed by media monitoring conducted by the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) for the period between January and December 2017.

The cases compiled in the summary of casebook reflects incidences of violation of media and internet freedom reported in the media. These documented cases however, may not account for all cases that are being investigated by the authorities (the police, Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission [MCMC] and the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia and the Ministry of Home Affairs).

Threats and attacks against media workers

Threats and attacks against media workers whether physical or verbal is an attempt to weaken the basic structure of the fourth estate. Journalists need to be able to fulfill its duty to report content that is independent and of public interest to the people without any threat of harm.

However, in 2017, media was attacked by both the ruling coalition (Barisan Nasional, BN) and the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) for their reporting.

  • Media personnel from the Tamil daily Tamil Malar sustained physical injuries for allegedly publishing articles deemed damaging to ruling coalition member, the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), as well as BN in two separate confrontational incidents.
  • A reporter from TV3, a private station owned indirectly by a member of the ruling coalition, was publicly shamed by DAP veteran leader Lim Kit Siang for asking a politically pertinent question.8

Female journalists face sexual harassment

Women journalists are further exposed to the threat of gender-based violence.

According to the 2015 survey conducted by International Federation of Journalists across Asia Pacific including Malaysia, one in five female journalists have experienced sexual harassment in their course of work. The article published by Asian Correspondent in Jan 2018 on the epidemic of sexual harassment in the workplace revealed personal accounts of sexual harassment by eight women from Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines ranging from lewd comments, sexually explicit messages, to sexual advances by male politicians.9 The journalists also reported that such harassment was “sanctioned by the bigwigs of the media industry where senior male editors condone, or in some cases, encourage such behaviour”.10

Kuala Lumpur based media movement Gerakan Media Merdeka (Geramm) and Jakarta-based Aliansi Jurnalis Independen (AJI) highlighted that this issue is not new and has been normalised as part of the job between journalists and their content source. They proposed mechanisms where reports can be made, and awareness education on what constitutes sexual harassment.11

The culture of victim blaming and shaming which is deeply entrenched contributes to the prevalence of sexual harassment faced by female journalists.

National Union of Journalists (NUJ) president Mohd Taufek Razak in response to the recent exposé reported by Asian Correspondent, claimed that journalists use “appropriate ways to obtain news stories” implying that women journalists leverage on their gender in gathering information from their source, “in the context of female journalists, particularly attractive ones, this [sexual harassment] can happen if both sides reciprocate.”12 His advice to journalists of not wearing attires that are “too revealing or sexy” drew ire from media organisations13, regional media rights organisation14, women’s organisations15, female politician and female internet users. Following the strong reaction to Taufek’s statement, NUJ apologised and acknowledged that sexual harassment is not caused by journalists’ appearance and clothing.16

 

State action against the media

Media freedom is challenged when the media is investigated, charged or prosecuted for delivering content to the masses on matters of interest to the public.

In 2017, five journalists from The Malaysian Insight were investigated by the internet and broadcast regulator Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) for publishing an article related to a royal inquiry into forex losses during the former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s tenure. Malaysiakini director and co-founder Premesh Chandran claimed trial to four offences under the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) in the cyber court for publishing a video of a press conference related to a major corruption investigation (1MDB) in July 2016. State action was taken against both online media outlets for publishing these allegedly ‘insulting’ content related to prime minister Najib Razak.

Nanyang Siang Pau and The Star were censured by Home Ministry with a show-cause letter under Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 (PPPA). Nanyang Siang Pau published the allegedly ‘offensive’ monkey caricature which allegedly ridiculed Parliament and the Islamist opposition party PAS, and by extension Islamic issues, following PAS’s tabling of a private members’ bill to enhance limits of punishment by Syariah courts.17 The Star’s front-page layout allegedly offended Muslims by seemingly suggesting a link between Malaysian terrorist and Muslims. Home Ministry demanded the Chinese press to take internal action against parties responsible for the ‘insulting’ comic whilst The Star suspended its editor-in-chief and executive editor for the ‘misleading’ front page layout.

Parliamentary restriction on media covering news at the Parliament

Media freedom is further affected when journalists are limited in their access to sources of information.

Speaker of Lower House of the Parliament Pandikar Amin invoked Standing Order 94 to declare the Parliament lobby ‘out of bounds’ for media personnel on the grounds of security, and therefore restricted press access to the media room only.18

 

Defamation

Out of 8 ongoing cases of defamation against the media instituted before 2017, New Straits Times Press (NSTP) and Utusan Malaysia (Utusan) each had 3 lawsuits against them, while TV3 and Malaysiakini faced one lawsuit respectively. Four lawsuits were settled out of court, two lawsuits saw damages awarded while the court advised an out of court settlement and another lawsuit will continue in 2018.

  • NSTP lost in two lawsuits and settled the other. NSTP was ordered to pay RM300,000 to Penang chief minister Lim Guan Eng for publishing defamatory article related to his alleged unconditional withdrawal of a defamation lawsuit against an Umno division youth chief in Penang for purportedly making ‘false’ corruption statements against him. NSTP was ordered to pay RM200,000 damages each to Lim Guan Eng and his deputy P. Ramasamy and costs of RM50,000 after withdrawing an appeal to the ruling by Court of Appeal in Sep 2016. NSTP and its two journalists were ordered to pay RM60,000 in costs to opposition politician Anwar Ibrahim after they apologised for publishing the defamatory article alleging Anwar paid RM50 million to late DAP politician Karpal Singh to bribe judicial and prosecution officials.
  • Utusan settled all of three lawsuits out of court. Utusan settled the lawsuit with BN chief minister of Pahang Adnan Yaacob following the chief minister’s successful appeal at Federal Court that overturned a landmark Court of Appeal decision in March 2016, which had declared that public officials have no right to sue in their official capacity. Utusan published an apology to Lim Guan Eng for publishing an article related to the similar content published by NSTP where the court ruled in favour of chief minister and ordered NSTP to pay damages. NSTP also settled the RM100 million defamation suit filed by PKR leader Anwar Ibrahim related to his alleged sexuality and ability to lead the opposition front.
  • Malaysiakini was advised by the court to settle prime minister Najib Razak and Umno secretary general Ab Rauf Yusoh’s defamation lawsuit regarding two allegedly defamatory published articles in May 2014.

Three new defamation lawsuits were filed and a letter of demand was issued in 2017. The lawsuits and letter of demand were initiated by opposition leaders against Utusan, Berita Harian and NSTP as well as online media Sarawak Report.

  • Utusan and NSTP sued by DAP adviser Lim Kit Siang for an article reporting claims made by DAP former vice-chairman Tunku Aziz about Kit Siang’s ambition to become a deputy prime minister by colluding with former prime minister Mahathir Mohamed.
  • Berita Harian editors, two reporters and NSTP were named as defendants by Parti Amanah Negara MP Khalid Samad for alleging that Khalid both in his official and personal capacity opposed PAS’ private members bill on raising the bar on punishment in the criminal jurisdiction of Syariah courts.
  • Sarawak Report sued in London by PAS president Hadi Awang in his personal capacity for an article claiming Hadi received funds, linked to 1MDB, from prime minister Najib Razak.
  • Utusan received a legal letter from Selangor chief minister Azmin Ali to issue an apology for reporting that Azmin approved the beer festival in the state and disregarded a police red flag citing security concerns.

Threat of defamation

Media outlets have also been subjected to threats of defamation lawsuits.

Media organisations and journalists

Tasek Gelugor MP from the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and former Syariah judge Shabudin Yahaya threatened a suit against journalists and media organisations for ‘spinning’ his comments following his opposition to a proposed amendment to Sexual Offences Against Children Bill 2017 which included prohibiting marriage for those under 16 years of age.19

‘BN-controlled’ media

Penang state executive councillor Phee Boon Poh threatened to sue ‘BN-controlled’ media, namely Utusan Melayu, New Straits Times, The Star and Chinese newspapers for printing that the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) had frozen his bank accounts which purportedly contain RM2 million. Phee was arrested and remanded on 11 Aug for investigation by MACC over an illegal carbon filter-processing factory, but released on 14 Aug after the Penang High Court dismissed the remand order.20

BN strategic communications team and New Straits Times

Penang chief minister Lim Guan Eng threatened suit against the BN strategic communications team and New Straits Times (NST) for publishing an article that quoted the deputy director of the BN’s strategic communications team Eric See-To who claimed Lim had made ‘veiled threats’ against the state’s citizens that the state’s welfare programme would be affected if he were imprisoned for corruption. See-To responded to the threat with a link to Guan Eng’s blog.21

 

Report made with enforcement agencies against media

Police reports were made against media outlets for publishing allegedly inaccurate news content and urging investigation into allegation of corruption.

The Star

Former DAP MP for Petaling Jaya Utara Ronnie Liu made a police report against The Star over the publication of an article titled “Liu heckles DAP over PAS ties in Selangor” on 14 April with reference to Ronnie’s facebook content posted on 12 Apr calling for government coalition members Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), Gerakan, MIC and Sarawak United Peoples’ Party (SUPP), as well as opposition parties DAP, Amanah and PPBM (Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia) to condemn PKR following Selangor PKR information chief Shuhaimi Shafiei expressing support for PAS’ private members bill to enhance punishments in the Syariah courts.22

The Malaysian Insight (TMI)

A Malay-interest group Jaringan Melayu Malaysia (JMM) lodged a report with the MACC alleging the online portal received RM3 million of cash in tranches over the past year, and that the portal’s fund is primarily from a firm registered in Hong Kong whose chief executive is also TMI’s chief executive officer and editor Jahabar Sadiq. Following JMM’s allegation reported in Malaysian Gazette, Jahabar made a police report claiming that his statement to MCMC was leaked and ‘twisted’ by JMM. TMI was earlier in the month investigated by MCMC over a news article that allegedly insulted the prime minister related to an investigation into forex losses during former prime minister Mahathir Mohamed’s tenure.23

 

Accusation of misrepresentation in news articles by political leaders

Chinese dailies Sin Chew Daily and Guang Ming daily, Malaysiakini, TMI and The Edge have been accused of misrepresenting facts in news articles.

  • Sin Chew Daily was accused by the DAP for being “morally depraved” and “manipulated by Barisan Nasional” following its deputy executive editor-in-chief Tay Tian Yan’s article published on Sunday expressing “disenchantment” with the party.24
  • Malaysiakini accused by MCA for allegedly taking prime minister’s speech out of context in its published video on KiniTV on 16 Sep titled “Chinese the first to be targeted if there is no peace, PM fears”. Prime Minister Najib Razak gave the speech at the ‘Malaysian Chinese Patriotic Rally’ held in Kuala Lumpur in conjunction with Malaysia Day on 16 September.25
  • TMI and The Edge criticised by Minister in Prime Minister’s Department Rahman Dahlan for publishing information about Malaysia’s economy based the report published by World Bank on East Asia which analysed economic growth of 15 countries in Asia.26

Guang Ming Daily (Chinese daily) journalist Ong Beng Siang, 40 filed a defamation suit in his personal capacity against Penang chief minister Lim Guan Eng for a facebook post on 22 January 2017 implying that Ong was an unethical journalist, in reaction to an article about a land issue linked to a vernacular Chinese school published in Dec 2016.27

 

Reminder to media peers to observe journalism ethics

Malaysiakini reminded Utusan, Berita Harian, NST and TV3 not to falsely allege that Malaysiakini ‘endorses’ or even ‘suggests’ Lim Kit Siang as deputy prime minister following the publication of an opinion piece by Kedah DAP legal bureau committee member Zulhazmi Shariff titled “Apa salahnya DAP jadi TPM” in Malaysiakini’s Malay section on 25 Jan.28

Online portal The Malaysian Insight ceasing operation

The Malaysian Insight resorted to ceasing publication due to financial constraints after a year in operation its inception in March 2017.29 Another online portal The Malaysian Insider had to cease operation in March 2016, less than a month after MCMC blocked its website over an allegedly defamatory publication against the prime minister. The Edge Media Group claimed to have suffered financial losses amounting to RM10 million in the 20 months of operation since taking over the portal in June 2014.30

 

Read the full report ‘Media and Internet Freedom in Malaysia 2017‘ here: Malaysia Media Freedom Report for 2017

 

Notes:

1 2017 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders, https://rsf.org/en/ranking/2017

“Groups welcome review of Printing Presses and Publications Act”, The Star Online, 14 Mar 2018, https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2018/03/14/groups-welcome-review-of-printing-presses-and-publications-act/

2 2016 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters without Borders https://rsf.org/en/malaysia

3 Freedom of the Press 2017, Freedom House https://freedomhouse.org/report/table-country-scores-fotp-2017

4 Freedom of the Press 2016, Freedom House, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2016/malaysia

5 Freedom of Press Scores, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2017/malaysia

Freedom of the Press 2016, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2016/malaysia

6 Freedom on the Net 2017 – Malaysia https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2017/malaysia

7 Freedom on the Net 2016 – Malaysia https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2016/malaysia

8 “Journalists have right to ask questions, Kit Siang told”, Malay Mail Online, 8 Feb 2017, http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/journalists-have-right-to-ask-questions-kit-siang-told

“Kit Siang lashes out at TV3 reporter”, New Straits Times, 7 Feb 2017, https://www.nst.com.my/news/2017/02/210348/kit-siang-lashes-out-tv3-reporter

9 “Female journalists, male politicians and the epidemic of sexual harassment in Asean”, Asian Correspondent, 15 Jan 2018, https://asiancorrespondent.com/2018/01/journalists-sexual-harassment-asean/#hkrYDgolFV1k68Q0.97

10 Malaysia’s ‘#MeToo moment’ sparked by report on sexual harassment of journalists”, Asian Correspondent, 19 Jan 2017, https://asiancorrespondent.com/2018/01/malaysias-metoo-moment-sparked-report-sexual-harassment-journalists/#USQMcpQvZMPd19Ar.97

11 “Letter: Stop sexually harassing reporters”, Malaysiakini, 17 Jan 2018, https://www.malaysiakini.com/letters/408997

12 “Sexual harassment: Union chief tells female reporters not to dress sexy”, Malaysiakini, 16 Jan 2018, https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/408885

13 “Geramm, Aji slams NUJ president’s sexist remarks”, The Sun Daily, 17 Jan 2018, http://www.thesundaily.my/news/2018/01/17/geramm-aji-slams-nuj-presidents-sexist-remarks

14 Malaysia’s ‘#MeToo moment’ sparked by report on sexual harassment of journalists”, Asian Correspondent, 19 Jan 2017, https://asiancorrespondent.com/2018/01/malaysias-metoo-moment-sparked-report-sexual-harassment-journalists/#USQMcpQvZMPd19Ar.97

15 “Sexual harassment: NUJ chief slammed for victim-blaming statement”, The Star Online, 16 Jan 2018, https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2018/01/16/sexual-harassment-nuj-chief-slammed-for-victim-blaming-statement/

16 “NUJ backtracks, says journalists’ dressing not to blame for sexual harassment”, The Star Online, 17 Jan 2018, https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2018/01/17/nuj-says-it-does-not-endorse-president-victim-blaming-remark/

17 “Home Ministry tells Nanyang to suspend staff over monkey comic”, Malay Mail Online, 21 Apr 2017, https://www.malaymail.com/s/1361133/home-ministry-tells-nanyang-to-suspend-staff-over-monkey-comic#CbSXvpQsdYBsPf2A.97

18 “Speaker shuts down media coverage in Parliament lobby”, Malay Mail Online, 21 Mar 2017, http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/speaker-shuts-down-media-coverage-in-parliament-lobby

“Banned from Parliament lobby? Not the first… and likely not the last time media faces problems there”, Malay Mail Online, 23 Mar 2017, http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/banned-from-parliament-lobby-not-the-first-and-likely-not-the-last-time-med

19 As a former Syariah judge, Shabudin said he had approved marriages of pregnant underage Muslim girls in accordance to Syariah laws. Shabudin claimed that his opinion was taken out of context and denied suggesting that it is “safer” for underage rape victims to marry their perpetrators as alleged by news reports. He was also reported to have said that nine-year-old girls are “physically and spiritually” ready for marriage.

“Under fire over rape remark, Umno MP now threatens to sue media”, 7 Apr 2017, http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/under-fire-over-rape-remarks-umno-mp-now-threatens-to-sue-media#GWHqAvX1grm0XIQg.97

20 “Phee promises legal action against dailies publishing ‘false news’ on him”, Malay Mail Online, 21 Aug 2017, http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/phee-promises-legal-action-against-dailies-publishing-false-news-on-him#zzDOf92l8bEbLM5J.97

“Penang exco Phee Boon Poh detained in illegal factory probe”, The Star Online, 11 Aug 2017, https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2017/08/11/phee-boon-poh-detained-macc-probe-illegal-factory/

21 “Guan Eng wants to sue, but BN comms man says remarks are fact”, Malaysiakini, 2 Jul 2017, https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/387196

“Guan Eng pledges defamation suit against BN Strategic Communications, NST”, Malay Mail Online, 2 Jul 2017, https://www.malaymail.com/s/1412015/guan-eng-pledges-defamation-suit-against-bn-strategic-communications-nst#M3JRxRFQ7xX1uLYc.97

“Media statement by Eric See-To in response to Lim Guan Eng’s legal Threat”, New Straits Times, 2 July 2017, https://www.nst.com.my/news/politics/2017/07/253970/media-statement-eric-see-response-lim-guan-engs-legal-threat

“Press Statement by Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng in Komtar, George Town on 1.7.2016.”, Lim Guan Eng’s blog, https://limguaneng.com/index.php/2016/07/01/bn-wants-to-put-me-in-jail-for-20-years-for-a-non-existent-corruption-offence-of-approving-the-rezoning-of-a-piece-of-land-in-balik-pulau-from-agriculture-to-housing-that-is-still-agriculture-because/

22 “Ronnie Liu: I never queried cooperation with PAS”, The Star Online, 15 Apr 2017, http://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2017/04/15/ronnie-liu-i-never-queried-cooperation-with-pas/

“Liu heckles DAP over PAS ties in Selangor”, The Star Online, 14 Apr 2017, https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2017/04/14/liu-heckles-dap-over-pas-ties-in-sgor-former-state-exco-member-rants-over-his-partys-continued-coope/

23 “Group wants MACC to probe portal over alleged RM3m cash takes”, Malay Mail Online, 15 Dec 2017, http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/group-wants-macc-to-probe-portal-over-alleged-rm3m-cash-takes#kQPPsbTWdJ5mCdmg.97

“Report made with MACC against TMI”, The Star Online, 16 Dec 2017, https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2017/12/16/report-made-with-macc-against-tmi-graftbuster-urged-to-probe-portals-funding/

24 “Chinese daily ‘Sin Chew Daily’ disenchanted with DAP”, New Straits Times, 1 Apr 2017, https://www.pressreader.com/malaysia/new-straits-times/20170401/281706909523368

25 “MCA sec-gen: PM’s remarks ‘distorted’”, Malay Mail Online, 17 Sep 2017, http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/mca-sec-gen-pms-remarks-distorted#T1ib7KgKVSmXrbtC.97

“Chinese the first to be targeted if there is no peace, PM fears”, Malaysiakini, 16 Sep 2017, https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/395413

“MCA slams news portal for misleading report on Najib’s speech”, The Star Online, 17 Sep 2017, https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2017/09/17/mca-slams-news-portal-for-misleading-report-on-najibs-speech/

26 “TMI, The Edge slammed- News outlets paint Malaysia’s economy in a negative light, which harms the people, says Rahman”, NST, 12 Oct 2017 https://www.pressreader.com/malaysia/new-straits-times/20171012/281586650818450

27 “Penang CM slapped with first-of-its-kind defamation suit by journalist [VIDEO}”, New Straits Times, 17 Mar 2017, https://www.nst.com.my/news/2017/03/221615/penang-cm-slapped-first-its-kind-defamation-suit-journalist-video

“Guan Eng sued over FB post”, The Star Online, 18 Mar 2017, http://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2017/03/18/guan-eng-sued-over-fb-post-guang-ming-daily-journalist-claims-cm-tarnished-his-reputation/

“Guang Ming reporter sues Guan Eng for defamation”, Malay Mail Online, 17 Mar 2017, http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/guang-ming-reporter-sues-guan-eng-for-defamation

28 “Don’t spread fake news – gentle reminder to Utusan, NST and others”, Malaysiakini, 26 Jan 2017 (modified 13 Apr 2017), http://www.malaysiakini.com/news/370568

29 “The Malaysian Insight to suspend publication from next week”, The Star Online, 23 Mar 2018, https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2018/03/23/the-malaysian-insight-to-suspend-publication-from-next-week/

30 “The Malaysian Insider to shut down”, Malaysiakini, 14 Mar 2016, https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/333791

“Author: The Malaysian Insider”, The Edge Markets, http://www.theedgemarkets.com/author/The%20Malaysian%20Insider

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