If Malaysia loses its internationally acclaimed, multiple award-winning independent news website Malaysiakini, then the slide backwards into non-developed status will accelerate apace.
Of course, for saying this Sarawak Report risks facing charges by Najib’s friendly IGP of such ‘crimes’ as ‘spreading alarm’ or ‘passing false news’ or ‘impugning the courts’. However, the fact is that it is a widespread and well founded observation that the higer courts of Malaysia have now developed a pattern of adopting untoward judgements that fly in the face of due process and established law.
That these untoward judgements have an uncanny and consistent tendency to serve the political and personal purposes of the prime minister, who has far too much influence over who gets to sit on the bench, is concerning. Take, for example, his unconstitutional extension of the term of his favoured Chief Justice and also the disgraceful decision to allow the appeal of an acquittal of the opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, followed by the acceptance ‘for free’ of the prime minister’s own private lawyer to act in the place of a public prosecutor in the conduct of that appeal.
And what about the decision that the prime minister of the country could not be defined as holding ‘public office’ and so could not be held accountable for abusing his public office? Or the announcement that the Chair of the Bar Association will now be appointed by the government and statements of the association will have to be voted on by all members?
Now we have the Appeal Court moving in once again to over-turn an eminently sensible ruling by a High Court judge that Malaysiakini had nothing to answer for in reporting the concerns of a local community troubled by a factory in its midst that local people said was processing gold using cyanide. The site had merely uploaded video of a press conference by those people expressing their fears and worries.
What better example could there be of the crucial role of a free media in any decent, democratic society than such an event as this? How else can ordinary folk raise concerns and hold powerful and wealthy businesses to account, if the media are unable to voice their issues?
The use of cyanide in the processing of gold has caused death and pollution all over the planet in the hands of careless and greedy operators. If the concerns of these people were unfounded in this case, then it was encumbent on the manufacturers to show them why they should rest assured that their own systems were safe and free from effluents.
On the other hand, if the health and environmental concerns were genuine they ought to have been addressed and compensated. And news organisations such as Malaysiakini in either instance ought to have been praised for making the effort to cover these concerns and help the people get to the truth.
This is the most important and noble job of an independent news organisation and by voicing the concerns of the people and holding the powerful to account it performs a vital role in a healthy democracy.
However, instead of addressing the concerns raised, this manufacturer chose to sue Malaysiakini for reporting on the villagers’ press conference. The High Court rightly threw out the case and pointed out that Malaysiakini was just doing its job and therefore lies protected under the legal provisions that give sanctity to reporting that is done in the public interest.
That should have been the end of it, but no, on up to the Appeal Courts, which have shown such an uncanny tendency to coincide in their judgements with the interests and convenience of the prime minister of Malaysia. Flying in the face of established legal conventions protecting press freedom, the Appeal Court in this case over-turned the judgement and slapped a huge and crippling fine on Malaysiakini for having allowed ordinary folk to speak out about health concerns, created by what they said was the processing of a deadly poison in their neighbourhood.
The fine of RM350,000 is being contested. However, who has confidence in a Federal Court that appears even more inclined towards the interests of Najib than the Appeal Court appears to be?
In another recent instance of apparent bias the courts increased an already substantial fine exacted against the wife of the jailed opposition leader, Wan Aziza, for suggesting that the settlers fund Felda was facing bankruptsy seven years ago and that corruption lay at the cause of its problems.
The fine was increased in December to a crippling RM2 million, just as MACC raids, the arrest of the former Chairman and further information was pouring out of Felda to justify every warning she had originally made. Instead, the judge laughably chose to accept Felda’s excuse that the reason the fund is facing financial problems is because Wan Aziza had pointed out the corruption issues, which they allege is what caused share prices to plummet rather than their own mismanagement!
It is the same argument that has been made against Sarawak Report. The accusation runs that because we revealed the billion dollar thefts from 1MDB, the fund failed to be able to launch on the stock market by fraudulently boosting its own value – making Sarawak Report personally responsible for 1MDB’s and Malaysia’s financial problems!
What this fine exacted against Malaysiakini could achieve for Najib is glaringly obvious. It threatens to destroy Malaysia’s most established, successful, best known and extensive independent online media operation just weeks before the prime minister launches his re-election bid in the midst of massive corruption scandals, involving billions of dollars of thefts of public money – by him personally.
The prize would be magnificent in the Prime Minister’s eyes (the sort of thing he would presently be praying for on his trip to Mecca, if it couldn’t be more conveniently arranged by earthly forces back home) which is the removal of a key critical voice in that campaign and an information source for the opposition. Instead, Malaysia would enter an election campaign where the government financed propaganda machine of print and broadcasting and online cyber trooping would dominate.
If he thereby wins, what chance will ordinary folk have to ever raise their concerns or protest again about exploitation by the connected and powerful? None, of course. But, why should anyone imagine that Najib Razak would care about that?