Independent Malaysian news site Malaysiakini has been found guilty of contempt and fined RM500,000 (S$163,700) by the country's highest court over comments posted on its website by readers.
In a 6-1 judgment by a seven-member panel, the Federal Court yesterday ruled that Malaysiakini should be held in contempt over the readers' comments on an article published on June 9 last year.
The article was about the reopening of Malaysian courts following a national lockdown last year.
The court, however, did not find Malaysiakini's editor-in-chief Steven Gan - who was named by prosecutors as the second defendant - guilty of contempt.
Malaysia's Attorney-General initiated the contempt proceedings against Malaysiakini over five comments posted on the article.
The comments, according to the A-G, had implied that the judiciary committed wrongdoings, was corrupt and lacked integrity.
In reading the summary judgment, Federal Court judge Rohana Yusuf acknowledged concerns that the case and its verdict might have a chilling impact on press freedom. However, Tan Sri Rohana stressed that contempt of court was not allowed under the law.
"And the law does not tolerate contempt of court as it undermines the system of justice," the judge said, urging Malaysians to use their discretion when posting on the Internet.
The judge also said that Malaysiakini could have deleted or moderated inappropriate comments, as it had an "impressive" editorial structure, and the comments could not have gone unnoticed by the team.
The court's decision has immediately raised concerns regarding media freedom in Malaysia, with foreign missions, lawyers and politicians expressing their support for the online news site.
In a joint statement yesterday, the British High Commissioner to Malaysia Charles Hay and Acting Canadian High Commissioner Esther Van Nes said that they were "concerned" by the court's verdict.
"People must be allowed to debate and discuss issues freely," they said.
A public campaign to raise funds to help the 21-year-old company pay the fine has taken off on social media, leading to Malaysiakini being one of the top trending topics on Twitter yesterday.
Malaysiakini said later yesterday that it has managed to raise at least RM552,321.
Mr Gan had described the fine as a "body blow" and said that it might be an attempt to shut down Malaysiakini.
The government's move to pursue the contempt proceedings had previously raised alarm among media watchdogs in Malaysia, with the Centre for Independent Journalism labelling the court action as "disproportionate" and a "serious threat to freedom of expression".
Malaysiakini had previously argued in court that Malaysian laws did not require online news sites to pre-moderate comments on their websites.
Malaysiakini, which was founded in 1999, is one of Malaysia's earliest online news outlets, and is among the few news organisations that retain a comment section on their websites.