A series of arrests and interrogations of journalists in Malaysia signals a rapid deterioration of conditions for media freedom in the country.
This month, the Malaysian attorney general filed contempt of court proceedings against Steven Gan, the editor-in-chief of the news organization Malaysiakini. And on July 10, authorities interrogated journalists over a documentary about migrant workers and COVID-19.
The events mark a significant retreat for Malaysia, which in the past two years made one of the biggest improvements of any country in press freedom as measured by the monitoring group Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
Gan's trial, which began on July 13, came after five readers left comments critical of the country's judiciary on a Malaysiakini article about the reopening of a court following a lockdown for the coronavirus.
Gan has maintained that the publication erased the comments within minutes of being contacted by Malaysian authorities.
The panel of judges hearing the case said they will issue their findings at a later date. If found guilty, Gan could face a jail term as well as a fine.
"The case is actually totally baseless," Daniel Bastard, Asia-Pacific director at Reporters Without Borders (RSF), told VOA. "It's a clear attempt to intimidate journalists."
The court case came days after Malaysian police interrogated six journalists in a separate case. They were working in Malaysia for the Qatari network Al Jazeera. The journalists, five of whom were Australian, broadcast a 25-minute documentary on July 3 that detailed dangers for Malaysian migrant workers during the pandemic lockdown.
National Police Chief Abdul Hamid Bador told reporters the documentary contained elements that could be investigated for sedition, defamation and violation of Malaysia's Communications and Multimedia Act. He maintained that the reporters were "witnesses, not suspects" in the investigation.
In a statement last week, Al Jazeera pushed back on authorities' claims that the documentary was misleading.
"Malaysian officials have criticized the documentary as being inaccurate, misleading and unfair," the statement read. "In a world in which the media face increasing threats, Al Jazeera calls for media freedom and the right to report freely without intimidation."
The Australia-based group Alliance for Journalists' Freedom said in a statement that the Al Jazeera case "appears to be following an increasingly worrying trend in Malaysia in which the government targets uncomfortable journalism."
Decline in press freedom
Malaysia is at a crossroads in its treatment of the press. Following the first change in government in six decades in 2018, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad immediately ushered in reforms that included quashing a "fake news" bill that could have targeted journalists.
During the reformist government's rule, a group of Malaysian media organizations — led by Malaysiakini — campaigned for a self-regulatory council that would help improve press freedom in the country, Gan said.
Malaysia subsequently moved up 22 places in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index to No. 101 — the biggest improvement among all 180 rated countries. The Paris-based organization wrote that the "the general environment for journalists is much more relaxed, self-censorship has declined dramatically and the print media are now offering a fuller and more balanced range of viewpoints."
"Malaysia really took a very encouraging move in terms of press freedom," Bastard said.
The trend now is reversed. In February, the reformist coalition government collapsed when defectors joined forces with the lead party of the previous government. On March 1, the country's Minister of Home Affairs, Muhyiddin Yassin, took over as prime minister. At the same time, the media council, and other efforts to ensure protections for journalists, were pushed aside, Gan said.
Within weeks of the new government's emergence, Gan was summoned to the Home Ministry — a first for Malaysiakini, which was founded in 1999. At the meeting, Malaysian officials raised concerns with several of the publication's reports, Gan said.
"I knew that it was the beginning of a change," Gan said of his initial reaction to the meeting.
Many of Malaysia's laws permitting suppression of the press remain, Bastard said, which was something the media council had hoped to repeal.
"[The laws] can be easily instrumentalized by the government to intimidate journalists, threaten them for arrest, things like that," Bastard said.
VOA reported in June that at least eight people had been charged or brought in for questioning for social media posts critical of the new government.
Gan remains hopeful that press freedom will be restored, but he said for that to happen, Malaysia would likely need another reformist government.
Around the time the publication was founded "there was tremendous fear on the streets." Now, more than 20 years later, "people feel empowered" to speak out and seek information — thanks to publications like Malaysiakini.
"I'm hopeful this is what Malaysians want," Gan said. "I always say press freedom is like a tube of toothpaste — when it's out, it's really hard to pull it back in again."
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of Al Jazeera journalists who are Australian nationals. VOA regrets the error.