The Malaysian authorities have blocked access to the Sarawak Report website, claiming it could undermine the country's stability after its allegations of abuse of public funds surrounding scandal-hit state company 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) were said by the government to be based on tampered documents.
The move might be futile given the various workarounds to circumvent the "Domain Name System" restriction, and the widespread use of social media in Malaysia.
But it sends a warning to other news sites that have been publishing the allegations to toe the line. Chief among the allegations was that US$700 million (S$960 million) linked to the debt-stricken state investor was deposited in embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak's personal accounts.
The Edge Group, which received a show-cause letter from the Home Ministry on July 1 over its 1MDB coverage, published a multi-page report it said was "possibly the last on this subject" in its Financial Daily newspaper yesterday. The report alleged that businessman Low Taek Jho and Saudi oil firm PetroSaudi cheated Malaysia of US$1.83 billion in a 2009 tie-up with 1MDB.
1MDB chided The Edge for "irresponsible reporting", adding: "We are surprised that these old and unproven allegations are being recycled yet again, when... there are multiple ongoing investigations being conducted by the lawful authorities on the issues raised previously."
The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) had on Sunday said it "decided to block a website that could undermine national stability, that is Sarawak Report, because it published content whose authenticity is yet to be determined and is under investigation".
The multimedia watchdog said it did this after receiving complaints from the public. It said the restriction would be in place until investigations by a Special Task Force - which includes the public prosecutor, police, graft busters and central bank - are completed.
The move has been criticised by the opposition, and Sarawak Report has insisted it "will not be impeded in any way by this action" from spreading further information on 1MDB. The state investment fund has struggled over the past year to meet financing obligations after racking up RM42 billion (S$14.4 billion) in debt over five years.
Cabinet ministers have defended the restrictions on Sarawak Report, saying it was the government's "responsibility" to stem the spread of "vicious lies".
"No government in the world will allow such blatant lies and controversial news to operate... We know very well that Sarawak Report might be able to use other avenues to broadcast their vicious lies to Malaysia but we, as a government, must make a stand," Urban Well-being, Housing and Local Government Minister Abdul Rahman Dahlan told reporters yesterday.
Datuk Abdul Rahman, who is also ruling party Barisan Nasional's strategic communications director, had last Wednesday called for the authorities to investigate an alleged plot involving the opposition and Sarawak Report to criminalise Datuk Seri Najib. This was based on a video confession by Mr Lester Melanyi, whose claim of being a Sarawak Report operative has been dismissed by the website.
Communications and Multimedia Minister Ahmad Shabery Cheek also defended MCMC, telling The Star Online it was a "proactive move" and encouraged the regulatory body to use "preventive measures in handling... unverified information", which he likened to "a virus that can kill".
1MDB's troubles have been a rallying point for critics such as Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to call for Mr Najib's resignation.
The Prime Minister has denied using state funds for "personal gain" but has yet to clarify if any funds were deposited into his accounts.
Mr Najib has instead accused the foreign media and his influential predecessor of "political sabotage" to topple him using undemocratic means. Dr Mahathir yesterday denied any conspiracy, writing in his blog that he has openly asked his successor to leave office.