Reporters Without Borders condemns the government’s decision, after a series of corruption scandals, to prioritise the intimidation of journalists and whistleblowers, who just do their duty to inform the public.
RSF supports the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) and Gerakan Media Marah (the Angry Media Movement), an informal coalition of journalists, and their condemnation of a proposed amendment to the 1972 Official Secrets Act – which would penalise whistleblowers and the use by journalists of anonymous sources – as an act of “flagrant intimidation”,
Under the amendment, journalists could be prosecuted for refusing to name the source of their information and maximum penalties would be increased to life imprisonment and 10 strokes of the cane. As things stand, the penalty for divulging official secrets is one to seven years in prison.
In an article in the Chinese-language newspaper Sin Chew Daily, attorney general Mohamed Apandi said the amendment was needed because of a significant increase in leaks of government secrets. Anticipating objections, he added that “those who claim journalistic ethics to protect their sources could be considered as collaborators with potential saboteurs, and that this practice would endanger the country’s security”.
“The reprisals against investigative journalists, the increase in censorship in recent months and now the proposed amendment designed to persecute whistleblowers and journalists clearly show that the government has taken the authoritarian road,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
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“The government needs to realise that it is Prime Minister Najib Razak’s policy of censoring and suppressing information, and its political and economic consequences, that are endangering the general interest, and not the corruption revelations.”
Corruption, censorship and witchhunt against whistleblowers
The past eight months have been marked by political and financial scandals involving leading members of the private sector and government officials, including the prime minister.
In July, the Wall Street Journal revealed details of a judicial investigation into allegations that a development fund called 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) had channelled money into the prime minister’s personal accounts.
Sarawak Report, an English-language news website based in London, was blocked by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission on 20 July, a few days after it revealed the content of confidential emails obtained from an anonymous source that supported the corruption allegations.
A warrant for Sarawak Report editor Clare Rewcastle-Brown’s arrest on a charge of “activity detrimental to democracy” was issued on 4 August, five days after she posted secret documents showing that the attorney general had been fired because he had been preparing to bring corruption charges against the prime minister.
Access to Medium.com, a news website that had been reposting Sarawak Report articles and thereby enabling internet users in Malaysia to circumvent the blocking of the Sarawak Report website, was in turn blocked by certain Malaysian Internet operators on 22 January.
Malaysian media outlets that followed these developments have also been targeted. Two publications that had been covering the investigation, The Edge Weekly and its sister, The Edge Financial Daily, were suspended by the interior ministry on 27 July for three months for coverage that was deemed to have been “prejudicial to public and national interest.”
Four news blogs – Syedsoutsidethebox, Tabunginsider, Fotopages and Din Turtle – were blocked by the media regulator on 27 January. The authors of these blogs and their content (Tabunginsider’s is a whistleblower, Din Turtle’s is a well-known critic of the prime minister) are very different but they all irritated the government.
Malaysia is ranked 147th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2015 press freedom index.