A Malaysian news site was fined the equivalent of nearly $124,000 for five comments below an article. News outlet Malaysiakini has raised money to cover the fee of 500,000 ringgit, but human rights advocates say it was targeted for its reporting on government corruption, and they worry that the case could chill political speech online.
The New York Times reported the verdict on Friday, when a panel of judges found Malaysiakini guilty of contempt of court. The outlet argued that it wasn’t responsible for reader comments, and it removed them after police warned that the comments illegally insulted Malaysia’s judiciary. But the court said it should have preemptively moderated the comments and never allowed them online.
Malaysiakini is a prominent independent outlet, and it’s earned international accolades for its reporting over the past two decades. It’s faced periodic legal harassment within the country, though, culminating in the contempt of court charges that were filed last year. Co-founder Steven Gan also faced charges and a possible prison sentence. Gan’s situation was compared to that of Filipino journalist Maria Ressa, whom authorities accused of “cyber libel” after her site Rappler published critical reporting. But unlike Ressa, who was convicted last year, Gan was acquitted of personal charges.
The Times reports that this case was the first of its type brought against a news outlet in Malaysia, and Amnesty International Malaysia called it “a grave setback for freedom of expression in the country.” But Malaysia’s internet crackdown echoes an international push to make sites legally responsible for what users post — including in the United States, where lawmakers have taken aim at a rule offering blanket protection against liability.