Why Malaysia’s Muhyiddin fears a free press

“The environment has dramatically changed, and it seems self-censorship has become the new normal again”

Nile Bowie, Asia Times

Advocates are sounding the alarm over a rapid deterioration of press freedom conditions in Malaysia following a series of police raids, arrests and interrogations of whistle-blowers and reporters who risk being jailed for years under draconian legislation often used to target the media.

Six journalists from Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera are among those currently under criminal investigation for alleged sedition, defamation and transmitting offensive content after the network aired on July 3 a documentary chronicling Malaysia’s controversial treatment of undocumented migrants during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a separate case, Steven Gan, the editor-in-chief of the news organization Malaysiakini, widely considered the most popular independent media portal in Malaysia, faces contempt of court charges in connection with reader remarks posted in the comments section of an article that authorities said had threatened public confidence in the judiciary.

“We are already seeing a pattern where media freedoms are really being affected purely through the way certain media outlets or journalists are being targeted,” said Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) executive director Wathshlah Naidu. “This pattern can already show that there is a certain concerted effort by the government.”

Observers say the escalating crackdown on media and critical expression is driven by leadership insecurity. Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin presides over a fragile governing alliance with the slimmest parliamentary majority in the country’s history, and analysts are divided over whether his premiership will survive snap polls that could be called in 2021.