Malaysian authorities have arrested five employees of a private news website and placed them under investigation for sedition, in what is seen as the government's latest attempt at stifling dissent and free speech.
The Malaysian Insider says three editors, a publisher, and a chief executive were arrested, apparently over a recent report that claimed the government had rejected a proposal for allowing tough Islamic law punishments.
Police raided the news portal's offices late Monday, seizing computers and other equipment and arresting three editors: managing editor Lionel Morais, features editor Zulkifli Sulong, and Malay news editor Amin Iskandar.
Publisher Ho Kay Tat and chief executive Jahabar Sadiq were also detained on Tuesday after they showed up to answer questions at a police station, the Insider said.
The men are being investigated under Section 4 of the country's notorious, colonial-era Sedition Act. If found guilty, they could face up to three years in prison. They could also face charges under the Communications and Multimedia Act.
The state-run Bernama news agency confirmed the arrest of the three editors, saying they were suspected of publishing "false news reports." It is not clear what aspect of the news articles are said to have been seditious.
The March 25 news story claimed Malaysia's nine state sultans had rejected a proposal by an opposition party that would have amended federal law to allow the use of Islamic punishment, or hudud. Authorities have denied discussing the matter.
Malaysia's Center for Independent Journalism slammed the arrests, saying if the article was found to be incorrect, authorities could simply have requested the paper edit or remove it.
"Today's raid and arrests is part of a worrying trend of a decline in standards of freedom of expression in Malaysia," the group said in a statement. "It is embarrassing and appalling that the law is being utilized in this manner and this constitutes an assault on the rule of law."
Since being re-elected in 2013, Prime Minister Najib Razak has used the Sedition Act with increasing frequency to silence critics, says Human Rights Watch's deputy Asia director Phil Robertson.
"The definitions in that law are so broad that the government can criminalize any speech that they want. And they've decided to let the hooks off and really go after the opposition," Robertson told VOA.
The latest arrests appear to be aimed at pressuring Malaysia's online media, which in some cases have been more willing to criticize the government than their print counterparts.
The online reports have been "very inconvenient" for a government that is in a "very weak state," according to opposition leader Tian Chua, who spoke to VOA by telephone.
"I think the government feels very insecure and they are taking the opportunity to push the journalists or the media to be toeing the line," said the opposition leader.
Tian Chua is the vice president of the People's Justice Party and has himself been repeatedly arrested and accused of sedition and other charges he says are politically motivated.
The de facto leader of the People's Justice Party is former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who is serving a five-year prison sentence after being convicted of sodomy. Critics say the charges are fabricated and meant to ruin the political career of Anwar, the main rival to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.