Malaysian arrests of website editors draw flak

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - Malaysian press groups on Tuesday criticised the arrest of three editors at a leading news portal over a disputed report, calling it part of a "worrying trend" of declining press-freedom standards.

The editors for The Malaysian Insider were arrested late Monday on suspicion of sedition and spent the night in jail, the website said.

They were arrested over a report last week that said Muslim-majority Malaysia's nine state sultans had rejected an opposition party's proposal to amend federal law to allow tough sharia criminal punishments such as amputating the hands of thieves.

The portal said the royal council denied the article's claim and filed a police report.

The Centre for Independent Journalism called the arrests excessive and "part of a worrying trend of a decline in standards of freedom of expression in Malaysia" and an "assault on the rule of law".

Those arrested were Managing Editor Lionel Morais and editors Amin Shah Iskandar and Zulkifli Sulong.

A sedition conviction can bring up to three years in jail.

It is not clear how the report could be considered seditious, but Malaysia has strict rules against insulting the ceremonial sultans.

Prime Minister Najib Razak's government has been condemned at home and abroad for arresting scores of opposition politicians, academics, and activists over the past year on sedition and other charges.

The crackdown began following a poor government showing in 2013 elections and escalated recently as the government has come under fire for jailing opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in February, and over mounting allegations of financial wrongdoing in a government investment fund.

Geramm, a coalition of journalists and activists, called the journalist's arrests "an attempt to use undue influence to silence the media".

In February, a cache of books by Zunar, one of Malaysia's best-known political cartoonists who is known for skewering Najib and his family, was seized by police.

Zunar, whose real name is Zulkifli Anwar Ulhaque, had been arrested several days earlier for questioning Anwar's jailing on sodomy charges, a ruling also criticised by the United States and a range of legal and rights groups.

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