KUALA LUMPUR - Independent Malaysian news site Malaysiakini has been found guilty of contempt and fined RM500,000 ($164,250) by the country’s highest court over comments posted on its website by readers.
In a 6-1 judgement by a seven-member panel, the Federal Court on Friday (Feb 19) ruled that Malaysiakini should be held in contempt over the comments on an article published on June 9, 2020.
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 - to be guilty of contempt.
Malaysia’s Attorney-General initiated the contempt proceedings against Malaysiakini over five comments posted on the article.
The comments had, according to the AG, implied that the judiciary committed wrongdoings, was corrupt and lacked integrity.
In reading the summary judgement, 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, politicians expressing their support for the online news site.
In a joint statement on Friday, the British High Commissioner to Malaysia Mr 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.
Lawyer Lim Wei Jiet meanwhile said that the court ruling is bound to have chilling consequences on media freedom in Malaysia.
Mr Lim pointed out that the ruling might lead to other Malaysian news portals disabling their comment section.
"This decision has opened a pandora's box. And it ain't pretty," he said on his Twitter handle.
A public campaign to raise funds to help the 21-year-old company pay the fine has also taken off on social media, leading to Malaysiakini being one of the top trending topics on Twitter on Friday.
Malaysiakini said later Friday 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 previously 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 its websites.
Malaysiakini, which was founded in 1999, is one of Malaysia’s earliest online news outlets, and is among the few news organisations that retains a comment section on its website.