Malaysia: Drop charges against independent news portal Malaysiakini

ARTICLE 19 condemns charges against the CEO and Editor-in-Chief of the independent online news portal Malaysiakini, Premesh Chandran and Steven Gan, as well as against the company KiniTV Sdn Bhd, under the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (CMA). Malaysiakini is accused of posting footage of a July 2016 press conference critical of the Attorney General’s decision to clear Prime Minister Najib Razak of corruption allegations.

“The charges against Malaysiakini underscore why the vague and sweeping CMA needs urgent reform. The increasing use of this law to target independent media and any online criticism of the government is seriously concerning, and also a clear violation of international human rights law on freedom of expression,” said David Diaz-Jogeix, Director of Programmes at ARTICLE 19.

On 26 July 2016 Malaysiakini allegedly posted footage of a press conference held by former Batu Kawan UMNO Division Vice-Chief, turned vocal critic, Khairuddin Abu Hassan, which was critical of Malaysian Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali’s decision to clear Prime Minister Najib Razak of corruption allegations linked to the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal, and called for his resignation. Najib Razak had previously been accused of receiving funds into his personal bank accounts, which were linked to Malaysia’s development fund, 1MDB.

On 15 May 2017, Chandran was charged at the Kuala Lumpur Cyber Court under Section 244(1) of the CMA, which criminalises offences by corporations. Earlier, on 18 November 2016, Gan was also charged for the same offence, while KiniTV Sdn Bhd was charged for “improper use of network facilities or services”, an offence under Section 233(1)(a) of the CMA. Chandran who currently resides in the United Kingdom on sabbatical leave and was unable to attend court in 2016, returned to Malaysia in May to face the charge.

Both Gan and Chandran were charged through use of the rarely invoked Section 244(1) of the CMA, which criminalises offences by corporations, and creates a presumption that senior officers within a company are guilty for offences committed by that company, unless they can prove the offence was committed without their knowledge, consent or connivance, and that all reasonable precautions to the prevent the commission of the offence were taken. Both Gan and Chandran are Directors of KiniTV Sdn Bhd, which was charged with an offence under Section 233(1)(1) of the CMA.

These latest charges follow Prime Minister Najib Razak claiming in a recent speech that freedom of expression and press freedom is “thriving” in Malaysia. However, since 2015 the Malaysian government has arrested, investigated and charged media personnel, whistleblowers, opposition politicians, artists, students, civil society and social media users for voicing their concerns over the 1MDB scandal. In addition to the CMA, they have also relied upon the Sedition Act 1948, the Official Secrets Act 1972, the Penal Code and the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (SOSMA).

Section 10(a) of the Federal Constitution requires the Malaysian Government to protect the right to freedom of expression. International human rights law is clear that this must encompass guarantees for independent media, including to report on matters of public interest that may be embarrassing to the authorities. The prosecutions against Malaysiakini clearly violate the right to freedom of expression.

ARTICLE 19 has called for comprehensive reforms to the CMA, in particular for the frequently invoked Section 233(1)(a) to more narrowly and precisely define what constitutes “improper use of network facilities or services”. The use of this provision in conjunction with Section 244(1) to target an independent online news portal is a worrying development, and will likely have a chilling effect on media and other independent voices in Malaysia.

We call on the Malaysian Government to immediately drop the charges against Premesh Chandran,, Steven Gan and KiniTV Sdn Bhd. Comprehensive reforms to the CMA and other laws used to restrict criticism of the government must be urgently prioritised to protect media freedom in Malaysia, in line with Section 10(a) of the Federal Constitution and the guarantees of international human rights law.

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