BANGKOK Like many online media outlets, the Malaysia Malaysiakini news site allows readers to post comments at the end of articles. This proved costly on Friday, when a court ruled that the news site was legally liable for comments from readers that were considered offensive to the judiciary.
A seven-judge panel of appeals found Malaysiakin guilty of contempt of court and ordered her to pay a fine of nearly $ 124,000, more than double the amount sought by prosecutors, for five comments left by readers.
Co-founder and media editor Steven Gan, who was acquitted of the same charge, said the harsh punishment appeared to be an attempt to oust the Malaysian from the business.
“It will have a tremendous shocking impact on discussions of issues of public interest and give a blow to our ongoing campaign to fight corruption,” he said. Gan after hearing.
Reader comments were posted in a story about the Malaysian judiciary, which closely maintains its reputation. They were later removed from the article, but not so quickly as to avoid accusations.
In their decision, the judges concluded that the Malaysian should have verified the comments and refrained from posting those that constituted contempt of court.
The panel rejected the defense arguments that Mr. Gan and the media were not legally responsible for the comments of their readers and that prosecutors should have been asked to prove that they intended to publish scandalous material.
The fine of 500,000 Malaysian ringgit was well over the 200,000 ringgit, approximately $ 50,000, that prosecutors had sought. The defense had demanded a fine of no more than 30,000 ringgit, on the grounds that it was the first time such an issue had been raised against a media outlet.
Defenders of Malaysiakinis had argued that a guilty verdict would have the effect of restricting freedom of speech in the country of 33 million, which in recent years has been violated by allegations of high-level government corruption.
Amnesty International Malaysia said it was deeply alarmed by the ruling, calling it a trace of justice and a serious obstacle to freedom of expression in the country.
Using contempt for court laws to censor online debate and the silence of independent media is another example of the shrinking space for people to express themselves freely in the country, said the group’s executive director, Katrina Jorene Maliamauv.
For decades, many of the media in Malaysia have been allied with the government, but independent media mainly online have appeared to provide critical coverage and give voice to the opposition. Supporters of Mr. Gan have said he and the Malaysian were being punished for diligent sales point reports.
The case was brought in June by the Attorney General of Malaysia, Idrus Harun. He was appointed to the post by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who took power less than a year ago at the head of an unelected government.
Mr Muhyiddins’ ruling coalition includes former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has been accused of taking billions of dollars from a government investment fund he once controlled.
In one of the first actions of Mr. Idrus as Attorney General, the government dropped money laundering charges against Mr. Najibs stepfather Riza Aziz, a Hollywood producer, in a deal that critics said would leave him holding $ 83 million of the quarter billion in government funds he was accused of taking.
Mr Najib has been charged with more than 40 criminal charges and is currently on trial for some of them. The Malaysian, along with other media, has been covering the scandal for years.
I’m extremely disappointed, Mr Gan said. What crime has the Malaysian committed that we are forced to pay 500,000 when there are individuals accused of abuse of power for millions and billions who are walking free?
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