(New York) - Malaysia's Home Ministry should immediately rescind its order suspending publication of two opposition party newspapers, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch also called for repeal of the 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Act.
On March 23, the Home Ministry notified the opposition party Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and its coalition partner Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) that they were prohibited from publishing their respective party newspapers, Suara Keadilan and Harakah, for three months. With three key by-elections scheduled for April 7, 2009, the ban will harm the parties' ability to inform and rally voters. Both parties plan to go ahead with distribution of this week's publications, which are already in print.
No official reason accompanied the ministry's action, although in later reports Home Ministry officials said the papers were banned for publishing reports that contravened the ministry's guidelines and permit conditions. Home Minister Datuk Sri Syed Hamid Albar said that the newspapers "were still publishing untrue stories after they were given warnings." He also said that the stories aimed to "instill hatred for the government and leaders."
"The government may argue it is banning party papers over concern for citizens' welfare, but this is unfair political warfare in disguise," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Malaysia's citizens deserve better from their elected leaders."
Despite constitutional guarantees to freedom of expression, the draconian Printing Presses and Publications Act effectively silences criticism of the Malaysian government by requiring newspapers to renew publishing licenses annually. According to the law, the minister's discretion to grant, revoke, or suspend licenses is "absolute" and not subject to judicial review.
Suara Keadilan has faced government interference since it received its first printing permit less than a year ago, eight years after its initial application. In September 2008, the Home Ministry instructed PKR to "show cause" why its publication license should not be suspended after it reported incorrectly that Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Musa Hassan became paralyzed after heart surgery. In February 2009, the government attempted to limit circulation by confiscating thousands of copies from distributors and warning them against selling the newspaper. It is unclear if Suara Keadilan circulation is limited to PKR party members.
On February 11, the authorities seized copies of Harakah, in print for 22 years without suspension. On February 26, PAS received a letter from the Home Ministry that it was in violation of its permit in part because Harakah reported on non-party matters.
A third member of the opposition coalition, Parti Tindakan Demokratik (DAP), has been trying unsuccessfully to renew the license of Rocket, the party paper, since December 2008.
"Much of Malaysia's mainstream media, with ties to Malaysia's ruling coalition, rarely run into trouble," said Pearson. "But online journals and other ‘new media' that are critical of the government are easy targets for censorship."
Human Rights Watch also expressed concern with the refusal of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the dominant party in the ruling coalition, to grant six members of the "new media," including Malaysiakini and the Malaysian Insider, access to its annual meeting on March 24-28, 2009. An UMNO official cited their "unfriendly" reporting as the reason. The meeting is of particular importance this year as UMNO will be choosing a new leader. With the current leader, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, stepping down, the new UMNO leader will fulfill his unexpired term, which has another four years to run.
On September 12, 2008, in still another attack on a free press, police arrested Raja Petra Kamarudin, founder and editor of Malaysia Today, under the Internal Security Act, which allows for indefinite preventive detention without charge or trial (https://www.hrw.org/en/news/2008/09/12/malaysia-free-journalists-and-parliamentarian). He was accused of demeaning Islam. Although released on technical grounds, the government is appealing the decision. In a separate case, Raja Petra is on trial for sedition on the politically motivated charge of defaming a government leader.
"The Malaysian government needs to allow all voices to be heard," said Pearson. "Freedom of speech is a touchstone of a true democracy."