Press Fears over Malaysia Blogs Suit

KUALA LUMPUR ~ A defamation lawsuit against two Malaysian bloggers by a pro-government daily has alarmed media watchdogs who say it is a landmark assault on internet free expression.

The move by the English-language New Straits Times Press (NSTP) is the first time bloggers have been taken to court for their comments on the internet in Malaysia, where the media is already tightly controlled.

The Southeast Asia Press Alliance (SEAPA) said it viewed the suit against the two well-known bloggers – Jeff Ooi who writes the Screenshots blog and Ahirudin Attan of Rocky’s Bru – with deep concern.

“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,” it said.

Reporters without Borders, an international media watchdog that lists Malaysia 92nd out of 168 nations on its worldwide press freedom index, urged New Straits Times CEO Syed Faisal Albar to intervene.

“You will surely accept that, even if they do not share your opinions, the disappearance of the blogs produced by these two outspoken bloggers, Ooi and Ahiruddin, would be a loss to the Malaysian media world,” it said.

“We believe that this case is groundless,” it said, adding that “it looks to us as though legal procedures are being used as a way of silencing two of your newspaper’s critics.”

Ooi has been blogging critically about the government since 2003, and won the Reporters without Borders Blog Award for Asia shortly after.

Ahirudin was the executive editor of the Malay Mail, a newspaper under the NSTP, who started “Rocky’s Bru” after leaving the news group in 2006.

SEAPA said that while the plaintiffs – the NSTP and three senior figures in the group – had the right to seek redress against any harm to their reputation, “their suit against the bloggers attacks the burgeoning movement of independent writing itself.”

The New Straits Times confirmed in an article last Friday that the legal action was filed and that it was in relation to certain articles and posts that had been published.

Ooi said on Saturday that he was working with his lawyers but declined to comment on his case, which will be heard on January 30. Ahirudin, whose case goes to court on January 25, could not be reached for comment.

Malaysia’s parliamentary opposition leader Lim Kit Siang warned that the suit would have a “chilling effect” on the freedom of bloggers.

“As these are the first two cases of Malaysian bloggers being sued for defamation, it will have far-reaching consequences for the healthy, mature and democratic growth for free speech and expression,” he said.

Rights group Aliran said it was disturbed by the repercussions the suit might have on Malaysian blogging circles, which have become an important outlet for alternative views.

“Bloggers may feel pressured to exercise more self-censorship and caution, and this might deter them from exposing abuse of power and corruption at the highest levels,” it said.

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