The International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom, today expressed outrage over the decision of Malaysia’s Federal Court finding the news website Malaysiakini guilty of contempt of court for comments posted by readers on its website.

In its decision, which has shocked the media community in Malaysia and raised fears over press freedom in the country, the highest court found Malaysiakini guilty of contempt of court for five readers’ comments that it deemed were offensive to the judiciary. The court imposed a fine of 500,000 Malaysian ringgit (about 100,000 euros) on the news portal but cleared its editor-in-chief, Steven Gan, off all charges.

In a statement sent to IPI after the judgement Gan said Malaysiakini was very disappointed with the decision. “The decision flies in the face of the fast-changing new media landscape in this country. It will have a tremendous chilling impact on discussions of issues of public interest and it delivers a body blow to our continual campaign to fight corruption, among others”, he said.

“I am terribly disappointed. What crime has Malaysiakini committed that we are forced to pay RM500,000 when there are individuals charged with abuse of power for millions and billions who are walking free?” Gan added.

Soon after the judgement was pronounced, Malaysiakini appealed to the readers and citizens to contribute towards the media defence fund to pay the fine. There was overwhelming support from the readers and just hours later it had received over RM 500,000 and closed the fund.

“Today’s decision, which does not comply with international standards on liability for user comments, sends a very worrying signal about the future of press freedom in Malaysia”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “We strongly condemn the baseless and disproportionate fine on Malaysiakini, which will have a chilling effect on the work of independent media and the right journalists and members of the public to debate, scrutinize and criticize the actions of public bodies.”

“Malaysiakini’s remarkable success in fundraising the fine amount is proof of the massive support for its independent journalism. Malaysians clearly know that this case was based on dubious grounds and seriously threatens freedom of expression.”

The case began in June last year, when Malaysia’s attorney general brought charges against Malaysiakini and Gan. The first hearing in the case was held on July 2. The attorney general argued that the comments made on the website by readers accused the domestic courts of committing wrongdoing, corruption, and failure to uphold justice and had thus compromised their integrity. Even though Malaysiakini took down the comments minutes after being warned by the police, the Federal Court of Malaysia dismissed the site’s application to set aside the order.

Launched in November 1999, Malaysiakini was the recipient of IPI’s 2001 Free Media Pioneer Award.