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Najib threatens news site with lawsuit
Publication Date : 17-05-2014
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has given popular online news site Malaysiakini 48 hours to apologise and retract readers' comments on his handling of the political crisis in Terengganu, or face a defamation suit - the first time a sitting Malaysian premier has threatened to sue the media for defamation.
Umno lawyer Hafarizam Harun on Thursday sent three letters of demand issued jointly with Umno to Malaysiakini, its editor-in-chief Steven Gan and chief editor Fathi Aris Omar over two allegedly defamatory articles published on Wednesday.
"Said defamatory articles could be construed in its natural and ordinary meaning that our clients are not competent to function as the leaders of Malaysia, have zero integrity and are unethical, are racist, have no moral values, and had abused their powers as a political leader and party," wrote Datuk Hafarizam.
The threat to sue is a first for a sitting Malaysian prime minister, say media analysts, even as Datuk Seri Najib has adopted civil rights reforms including media freedom after taking office.
Najib's government amended a controversial law in 2012 by dropping a requirement for news outlets to apply for yearly licences, though critics say the powerful Home Ministry ultimately approves publishing permits.
He has faced criticism from some in his party for allowing too much freewheeling debate in the politically polarised country.
The Premier said in an interview with Bernama last week that there are laws for troublemakers but "we are courageous enough to accept criticism, so long as it is made in a civilised manner".
The Malaysiakini articles titled "A case of the PM reaping what he sows" and "How much will Najib spend to keep Terengganu?" had compiled readers' comments critical of Najib's handling of the Terengganu crisis.
Umno briefly lost its majority in the Terengganu state legislature this week when sacked menteri besar Ahmad Said quit the party on Monday with two other Umno lawmakers, a situation which could have tipped the oil-rich state to the opposition.
The crisis was averted two days later when the trio returned to Umno, amid speculation in online media such as Malaysiakini and on social media about how the crisis was resolved quickly.
Chang Teck Teng, a media industry researcher with Taiwan's Shih Hsin University, said Malaysian law held news outlets responsible for their readers' comments.
"The PM's main target is not Malaysiakini," he told The Straits Times. "He is merely sending a warning to the public and holding Malaysiakini responsible."
Gan, who co-founded Malaysiakini in 1999, called the move by Najib a form of intimidation against its readers. He said: "It stops us from allowing readers to comment freely. A case of rattling the cage to scare the monkeys." Malaysiakini said it is willing to publish a response from Najib, but it will not retract the readers' comments.
"This is the wrong battlefield," said political analyst Wong Chin Huat of the Penang Institute, referring to the lawyer's letters of demand. "It will only highlight the problems we have with media freedom."