Malaysia’s Federal Court delivered its decision in a contempt of court case against online portal Malaysiakini and its editor-in-chief and co-founder Steven Gan in a case widely seen as a test of media freedom in the country. The independent news website was found guilty of contempt, while Gan escaped a prison sentence after he was found not liable.
The proceedings relate to five comments posted on the site, in which readers criticised the acquittal of previous chief ministers and the effectiveness of the courts and judiciary. Malaysiakini removed the comments as soon as they were brought to their attention.
The site’s defenders had argued that a guilty verdict would have a serious chilling effect on freedom of expression and would censor online debate in the country.
In a 6-1 majority decision, the court held that the news portal should have vetted the comments and had failed to cast reasonable doubt on the allegations. It ordered Malaysiakini to pay a fine of RM500,000 ($123,600) within three working days. The fine was more than double the amount sought by prosecutors.
Malaysiakini reached out to its readers to help it cover the cost of the fine and incredibly managed to exceed its fundraising target in under five hours.
Malaysiakini has been the country’s leading independent political news site for 20 years and played an important role covering the 2018 general election that ousted the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) government after 60 years in power. The prosecution of Malaysiakini followed a reorientation of the government back towards UMNO.