MALAYSIA: Don’t Censor or Harass Independent Website

(New York) – The Malaysian government should drop its order to a popular news website to remove videos of a recent protest and of a government minister’s reaction, Human Rights Watch said today.

The website Malaysiakini has refused to comply with a September 3, 2009 order by the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission to remove a video showing an incident where protesters in Selangor state marched with a severed cow’s head to oppose the building of a Hindu temple and another in which the home minister stated that the actions were legal. The minister later reversed himself and police charged some of the protesters.

“The government wants to make the problem disappear by taking the videos off the internet,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But Malaysians have a right to see for themselves what happened and hear what was said – the government shouldn’t be suppressing this information.”

According to the Communication and Multimedia Commission, the videos are in violation of the Communication and Multimedia Act 1998, which prohibits “content which is indecent, obscene, false, menacing or offensive in character with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass another person.” Violations carry fines of up to RM50,000 (US$14,325) and up to a year in prison.

The commission’s letter ordering Malaysiakini to remove the videos from its website stated that the videos “contain offensive contents with the intent to annoy any person, especially Indians.”

One of the videos, “Temple demo: Residents march with cow’s head,” taken on August 28, 2009, shows Muslim Malay residents protesting plans to relocate Sri Maha Mariamman Hindu temple to their neighborhood. About 50 people, including several carrying a bloody cow’s head, march 300 meters from the state mosque in Selangor to the state secretariat building.

At the state building, the protesters presented their demands and threatened violence against the Hindu community and the Selangor government if the relocation went forward. Some marchers spat on and stomped on the head, an act clearly aimed at Hindus, who regard cows as sacred. The organizers had not requested a permit as required by Malaysia’s Police Act. Police monitoring the event made no move to intervene.

The second video, “Hisham: Don’t blame cow-head protesters,” recorded Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein’s news conference on September 2, exonerating the protesters of any wrongdoing. He said: “All they wanted was to voice their unhappiness and the unwillingness of the state government to consider their request. … This day and age, protests should be accepted in this world as people want their voices to be heard. If we don’t give them room to voice their opinions, they have no choice but to protest.”

Responding to a domestic outcry, Hishammuddin on September 3 reversed his position and ordered a further police investigation and “uncompromising punishment” of the protesters. On September 9, police charged 12 participants with illegal assembly. Six of the 12 were also charged with sedition and face fines of up to RM5,000 (US$1,430) and up to three years in prison.

“It’s time for the government to stop using sedition charges against protesters and to consistently uphold free expression,” said Pearson.

Malaysiakini has refused to remove the videos. The editor-in chief, Steven Gan, told the media: “Our intent … was not to ‘annoy,’ but to do our job as journalists to draw attention to the protest and to ensure action is taken so that incidents like this will not happen again in Malaysia.”

The commission has embarked on a thorough investigation of Malaysiakini. Over a three-day period, eight commission staffers, acting in teams, extensively questioned the chief executive officer, Premesh Chandran, as well as editors, reporters, the video team, and technical support staff. Gan was questioned separately. Investigators also copied parts of the hard disks from two computers that edit and upload videos, and demanded the original tapes.

This is not the first time that Malaysiakini reporting has resulted in a heavy-handed response by government officials. In 2003 the government carried out a 10-month investigation of the news site for posting a letter to the editor criticizing the government (http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2003/10/07/malaysia-end-intimidation-news-website ). In June 2009, the government temporarily banned Malaysiakini journalists and other critical media from entering parliament.

“The government’s investigation of Malaysiakini is nothing short of media harassment and it needs to stop,” said Pearson. “Malaysians are entitled to know all sides of a story. It is not up to the government to approve what news is fit to air, print, or post.”

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