The Southeast Asian Press Alliance views with grave concern a landmark suit in Malaysia filed on 4 January 2007 by a major news group and its top executives against two bloggers for “defamation” and “malicious falsehoods”. SEAPA sees this case as going beyond the interests of private entities. It will impact on Malaysians’ access to diverse and independent news, commentary, and information, and will also adversely affect the Internet as a medium for free expression in a country where much of the mainstream press is owned and influenced by political parties and government itself.
While the plaintiffs, the New Straits Times Press (NSTP), its Deputy Chairperson Kalimullah Hassan, Group Editor-in-Chief Hishamuddin Aun and former group editor Brenden Pereira, have the right to seek redress against any harm done to their reputation, their suit against the bloggers attacks the burgeoning movement of independent writing itself.
Malaysia’s community of bloggers have come together to condemn the filing of the cases as a threat to free expression in the country in general.
SEAPA notes that the two bloggers being sued, Jeff Ooi and Ahirudin Attan, have been actively exposing ethical issues pertaining to the traditional media that – because they are all either government owned and controlled, or linked through close business and political associates – give little room to dissenting views.
Ooi has been blogging critically and controversially of the government and public figures on his “Screenshots” blog since 2003, winning the Reporters Without Borders Freedom Blog Award for Asia soon after.
Ahirudin was the executive editor of the “Malay Mail”, a newspaper under the NSTP, who started his “Rocky’s Bru” blog after leaving the news group following a financial and structural revamp in early 2006. He has been the president of the National Press Club since 2003.
SEAPA believes the lawsuits and injunctions will have a detrimental effect in encouraging open public debate and legitimate criticism of wrongdoing where public interest is at stake, a democratic feature that has long been lacking in Malaysia, despite the democracy that it professes.
The 11 January exparte injunction orders Ooi to remove 13 allegedly defamatory postings about the plaintiffs on his blog by 17 January.
Ooi has also been barred from publishing the same or similar postings until the defamation suit against him is settled. An interparte hearing of the application for an injunction against Ooi will be heard on 30 January.
In the suit against Ahirudin, NSTP Chief Executive Officer Syed Faisal Syed Albar is an additional plaintiff. An injunction ordering for the removal of 48 allegedly defamatory postings from Ahirudin’s blog will be heard on 25 January.
SEAPA believes the lawsuits and injunctions will have a detrimental effect in encouraging open public debate and legitimate criticism of wrongdoing in matters of public interest. Freedom of expression is a democratic feature that has long been suppressed in Malaysia, though a whiff of it has spread in recent years, thanks in large part to the Internet. With the Internet being the focus of the latest lawsuits, however, the people may be less emboldened to speak up in what had been touted as the ultimate medium of free expression. SEAPA urges the aggrieved parties to recognise and respect the right to free expression and seek less restrictive means to affirm their rights.