The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) is alarmed over last week’s politically-motivated protests and legal harassment against Malaysia’s independent news portal Malaysiakini.
On 3 November, a 100-strong delegation of the ‘red-shirts’ group headed by Jamal Md Yunos, Sugnai Besar division chief of ruling party United Malay Nasional Organization (Umno) staged a protest in front of Malaysiakini office and demanded to meet with the news portal to explain its relationship with the Open Society Foundations (OSF), a private international donor for civil society groups.
Direct talks between Jamal with Malaysiakini Editor-in Chief Steven Gan proved fruitless as the red-shirt leader threatened to return with more protesters to “tear down [runtuh]” part of the Malaysiakini building.
The group came back with a bigger crowd of some 700 protesters, who were kept at a distance from the Malaysiakini headquarters by the local police.
Meanwhile, the police announced the investigation of Malaysiakini and all groups named in the leak for receipt of such funds under article 124c of the Penal Code for “attempting to commit an activity undermining parliamentary democracy”, since US billionaire George Soros allegedly wanted to intervene in the Malaysian elections.
Such a charge is misguided considering the role of Malaysiakini as an alternative channel for news and opinion. While labeled by the state-owned media as ‘pro-opposition’, the online news portal broadens the public discourse on Malaysian politics. It served as a platform for information and analyses not available in mainstream media–which are either owned or controlled by the state through the use of licensing and harsh laws.
Malaysiakini has established itself as an independent source of news and views about Malaysia over the last 17 years. Its sustainability as an online news portal deriving much of its revenue from reader subscriptions is a testament from the public of the need for a such a media outlet.
These threats made by different groups – accusations by the Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, protests and intimidations by the pro-government groups, and the police investigation – are part of a desperate effort to discredit perceived critics of Prime Minister Najib Tun Rasak.
The campaign stems from an alleged leak from a hacking group DC leaks that identified several groups receiving funds from OSF. The groups that were identified in the leak as receiving funds include the Bersih movement for clean elections, Merdeka Center, Bar Council, and Malaysiakini.
SEAPA believes accusations against these groups are baseless, as most of them have acknowledged receipt of funds for legitimate projects supported by the foundation.
The accusers of Malaysiakini and other groups are resurrecting a Mahatir-era bogeyman, blaming Soros for the Asian financial crisis of 1997. During that time, the former Malaysian strongman prohibited Malaysian civil society groups from receiving funds from the Open Society Institute (OSI) as OSF was previously known. Funding for Malaysian civil society and media groups have since been allowed in Malaysia for more than a decade now.
OSF’s funding issue is also regarded with deep suspicion by some Asian governments, including recently in Thailand and the Philippines.
SEAPA calls on Umno to stop using this harassment tactic, which keeps journalism from its role of providing information to the public and holding the powers-that-be accountable. Intimidation of other civil society groups must also stop.
SEAPA urges the police to immediately withdraw investigations into this outrageous charge.
SEAPA strongly supports Malaysiakini on its position that journalism is not an act detrimental to parliamentary democracy. We extend our solidarity to the other targeted groups.
These incidents only show that press freedom and free expression are continuously under attack in Malaysia. The media and the civil society are not the enemy of the state. They are allies in building a strong democracy.
[Note: In the interest of transparency, SEAPA states that it also receives support from OSF.]