Decreasing press freedom under Anwar’s watch

Freedom of speech under attack

Murray Hunter

Many believed that when Anwar Ibrahim became prime minister freedom of speech and press freedoms would be liberalized. Many of the older generation remember when the ‘Free Anwar Movement’ and later ‘Reformasi Movement’ had limited press circulation via the DAP’s The Rocket and PAS’s Harakah. They were both highly restricted and sort after at the time. The internet of the early 2000s had sites like ‘Free Anwar’, which gave birth to political blogging in Malaysia. Articles had to be printed off and secretly distributed to people in Mosques and coffee shops.

Many believed Anwar would have at least been “Bapa Free speech” (The father of free speech) during his era as prime minister.

Anwar has taken a page from Singapore’s PAP political playbook

The late Lee Kwan Yew and his son Lee Hsien Loong have used defamation suits against their political enemies to both silence and bankrupt them. Pakatan Harapan uses the same strategy to suppress free speech.

This has become Anwar’s weapon of choice in suppressing free speech, so much so, he is now being coined “Bapa Saman Negara”, or the nation’s father of suits, taking a pun on the honorific names previous prime ministers are respected by.

Anwar, as a public figure is taking civil action against PAS MP Awang Hashim, over his alleged statement that “Tambun MP (Anwar) is more vindictive than former premier Dr Mahathir Mohamed”, and the claim over the legitimacy of Anwar’s appointment as the 10th prime minister, allegedly made in the parliamentary lobby.

Selangor PKR has threatened to sue the media over the uncovering of the Maritime Gateway project, where Menteri Besar Amirudin Shari has given over generous terms to a Selangor state joint venture with Berjaya Corporation. Many investigative journalists have found the same with the Penang DAP government.

As public figures, criticisms and investigations into government business should be allowed for the sake of transparency and good government. This is not the case with the Anwar government.

A Royal Commission into a book published three years ago

During the final days of the Ismail Sabri government, the attorney general Idrus Harun was instructed to undertake an investigation into former attorney general Tommy Thomas’ book “My Story: Justice in the wilderness”. Most assumed that this investigation would have just been dropped after Anwar came to power. However, in January the new law minister Azalina Othman announced that terms of reference would be drawn up for a Royal Commission of Inquiry into his book published three years ago.

The Anwar government has set a precedent that any author of a book or article can be retrospectively investigated.

A troll army shooting down any perceived criticisms of Anwar

Since the last election, there has been a group of writers who rebut perceived criticisms of Anwar and are active in the comments sections of online news portals attacking negative articles about the Anwar government. Some are those who sincerely believe Anwar should be given a chance and therefore above criticism. While others are part of a paid dark army of trolls and bots, realigned from the DAP and PKR cybertrooprs to take on these new tasks.

Online portals forced to practice self-censorship

Malaysian culture has created an atmosphere of self-censorship. News portals are extremely hesitant to publish articles that could be deemed by the Anwar government as hostile. Political secretaries use their network of relationships with portal editors to influence the boundaries of what is and what isn’t acceptable. Political secretaries request news portal editors to modify articles already published, or even pull them from their sites.

Major news portals are collaborating with the staff of PH ministers to censor or even pull articles off their websites

Many government agencies block access to journalists. Journalists, on the whole take the safe way in just publishing what ministries provide them. Some have found it is financially beneficial to do so as well. This creates a major barrier to real investigative journalism, which acts as a check against corruption.

Journalists are well aware of the civil defamation laws. In Malaysia there are also criminal deformation laws the attorney general can utilize to silence any journalists who get close to the truth. The biggest deterrent are the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012, where a journalist can be detained for up to 28 days, while the police undertake investigations. While detained, those in custody are held in spartan conditions that would break the spirit of most.

SOSMA can be used to intimidate journalists.