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KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian media and rights advocates are warning of a crackdown on press freedom after a Federal Court on Friday ruled that news portal Malaysiakini was guilty of contempt for publishing readers’ comments critical of the judiciary on its website last year.

Although the comments were removed by Malaysiakini, the country’s attorney general in June filed charges against the portal and its editor-in-chief, Steven Gan.

The Federal Court ruled that Malaysiakini was liable for third-party comments and fined it 500,000 ringgits ($124,000), which must be paid next week. The editor-in-chief escaped a sentence as the court said no evidence was found that he had facilitated the publication of critical comments.

Afterwards Gan said that the verdict “will have a tremendous impact on discussions of issues of public interest,” adding that it was a blow to Malaysiakini’s campaign against corruption.

“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?” he told reporters.

Malaysiakini was co-founded by Gan in 1999 as the region’s first online daily news site and became popular for its blunt reporting.

The court’s decision comes amid increasing concerns over a crackdown on media under Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s administration, which took power in March last year.

“Media operations in Malaysia are more controlled and restricted than ever — all since the change of government last year,” the Malaysian Center for Independent Journalism (CIJ) said in a statement after the verdict.

“The decision against Malaysiakini also raises the possibility that online news portals may remove their respective comments sections to reduce the liability against third-party comments,” Wathshlah Naidu, CIJ executive director, said.

Readers also will lose the chance to voice dissenting or alternative positions on issues of public interest, she added.

“This challenges our constitutionally protected freedoms of expression and speech, which underpins and facilitates public participation and a healthy democracy,” Naidu said.

Gerakan Media Merdeka (Geramm), a coalition of media practitioners and supporters of press freedom, said the decision to hold Malaysiakini responsible for readers’ comments “will have a serious negative effect on press freedom and freedom of expression.”

“The decision made by the apex court will cast a negative light on the fight for press freedom in the country in the age when the media have to play an active role in order to carry out their duties of checks and balances.”

Zikri Kamarulzaman, a senior Malaysiakini journalist, said that he had expected a guilty verdict but not the hefty fine.

“We’ve faced many obstacles and threats over the years, but my heart sank when I read the message that we were being slapped with a RM500,000 fine,” he told Arab News.

The ruling will have serious ramifications for media freedom in the country, he said.

“News portals now will have to heavily regulate the comments section, and this may even lead some to disable comments entirely because moderating comments is a tedious and daunting task.”

He added: “Are the admins of a Facebook page now responsible for the comments on their posts and if the admin is posting contemptuous remarks, is it then Facebook’s responsibility to delete it?“

Foreign diplomats, including British High Commissioner Charles Hay and acting Canadian High Commissioner Esther Van Nes, also expressed concern over the ruling.

“Media freedom is of fundamental importance to the security, prosperity and well being of all societies. People must be allowed to discuss and debate issues freely,” they said in a joint statement shared on social media.

A similar response to the court decision came from the US Embassy.

“Freedom of expression, including for members of the press and the general public, is fundamental for the public discourse and the democratic principles that support accountability and good governance,” the embassy said in a statement.

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