Malaysian internet regulators on Tuesday interviewed executives of a re-born news portal over an editorial that was deemed to have criticized Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, officials said.
Salleh Said Keruak, Malaysia’s minister of information and multimedia, confirmed that The Malaysian Insight (TMI) was under investigation. Salleh did not elaborate.
“The MCMC is investigating if TMI had breached any laws since it has received a report on the matter,” Salleh, who is in charge of the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), a regulatory body, told reporters.
Salleh is also a high-ranking official of the country’s largest political party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which has dominated Malaysian politics throughout the country’s 60-year history. Najib is poised to run for re-election in polls expected next year.
TMI staff members said MCMC officials had questioned five executives with the website about a recent editorial that lambasted the government in connection with a foreign currency scandal dating in the 1990s that involved the country’s central bank.
Late last month, a government-appointed panel, the Royal Commission of Inquiry, recommended that the opposition’s top two leaders – ex-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim – be investigated along with other former government officials over billions of dollars in central bank losses during that period, when Mahathir was in power and Anwar served as his deputy.
Since 2015, Mahathir in particular has led calls for Najib to resign over corruption allegations tied to the 1MDB affair, a financial scandal that has overshadowed Malaysian politics. Najib has denied any wrongdoing in deposits into his private bank accounts of nearly U.S. $700 million in money-linked to 1Malaysia Development Berhad, a state investment fund that he founded in 2009. He has said that the cash was donated by the Saudi royal family.
The Malaysian Insight succeeded The Malaysian Insider, which had aggressively covered the 1MDB story before it ceased operating in March last year over financial difficulties. Those had arisen after the MCMC had ordered the site be blocked online for allegedly publishing content perceived by authorities to be defamatory.
The Malaysian Insider became the second news site to be blocked in the country in 2016 after the Hong Kong-based Asia Sentinel suffered a similar fate that January.
MCMC said in a statement then that it had blocked the Insider for violating section 233 of the nation’s 1998 communications law, which bars obscene or offensive use of network facilities.
The probe on The Malaysian Insight came after the 10-month-old website ran the editorial headlined “A Sham of an RCI,” which criticized the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) report that blamed Mahathir, Anwar and other officials from the Mahathir era for billions of dollars in foreign exchange losses. The commission’s report marked the first time that Mahathir and Anwar were publically accused of potential criminality over the massive losses.
On Tuesday, MCMC officials visited TMI’s offices near Kuala Lumpur and interviewed five staff members, including Chief Executive Editor Jahabar Sadiq.
A commission official declined to comment, but confirmed that the visit took place.
Editorial insulted Najib, UMNO officials say
On Saturday, during UMNO’s annual assembly in Kuala Lumpur, party officials accused The Malaysian Insight of insulting Najib, the party’s president, through the editorial.
“Do not let this to happen,” said Nashrol Hisham Abdullah, an UMNO delegate. “If someone insults the president, we have to be angry.”
Three associations of Malaysian journalists issued a joint statement on Sunday questioning the government’s move to investigate the website.
The Malaysia Media Freedom Committee (WAN-IFRA), Institute of Journalists Malaysia (IoJM) and the Angry Media Movement (Geramm) said criticism of public officials was “a key part of freedom of speech” guaranteed under the country’s Constitution.
The groups called on the government to open up the media space, instead of crippling the news industry with threats of criminal action.
“It is concerning that a government agency should be so quick to announce a probe against a news agency based on complaints that have not been backed by any proof of intent to ‘insult’ the prime minister, as alleged,” they said.
Hata Wahari contributed to this report.