5 Reader Feedback Simply Price a Information Web site $124,000

BANGKOK – Like many online news outlets, Malaysiakini’s Malaysian news site allows readers to post comments at the end of articles. That proved costly on Friday when a court ruled the news site was legally responsible for reader comments that were viewed as an insult to the judiciary.

A seven-judge appeals court found Malaysiakini guilty of disregard of the court and fined it nearly $ 124,000, more than double the prosecutor’s request, for five comments left by readers.

News agency co-founder and editor-in-chief Steven Gan, who was acquitted of the same charges, said the heavy sentence was an attempt to put Malaysiakini out of business.

“It will have a tremendous chilling effect on the discussion of issues of public concern and will deal a serious blow to our ongoing anti-corruption campaign,” Gan said after the hearing.

Much of the media in Malaysia has been allied with the government for decades, but independent news outlets – mostly online – have emerged to be critical and give the opposition a voice. Supporters of Mr. Gan have said that he and Malaysiakini have been fined for carefully reporting the outlet.

Readers’ comments have been published on a story about the Malaysian judiciary that carefully protects its reputation. They were later removed from the article, but not quickly enough to avoid fees.

In their ruling, the judges concluded that Malaysiakini should have reviewed the comments and refrained from publishing those that constituted contempt for the court.

The panel rejected defensive arguments that Mr Gan and the news agency were not legally responsible for their readers’ comments and that prosecutors should have shown that they intended to publish scandalous material.

The 500,000 Malaysian ringgit fine was way more than the 200,000 ringgit, roughly $ 50,000, that prosecutors requested. The defense had requested a fine of no more than 30,000 ringgits as it was the first time such a case was brought against a news agency.

Within four hours of the verdict, defense fund donors had contributed more than enough to cover the entire fine, according to Malaysiakini.

The website’s defenders had argued that a guilty verdict would undermine the freedom of expression of 33 million people in the country, which has been shaken in recent years by charges of high government corruption.

Amnesty International Malaysia said the ruling was deeply troubling, calling it “a travesty of justice” and “a serious setback for freedom of expression in the country”.

“The use of contempt of court law to censor online debates and silence independent media is another example of the shrinking space in which people in the country can express themselves freely,” said the group’s executive director Katrina Jorene Maliamauv.

The US embassy in Kuala Lumpur, the capital, also expressed concern about the ruling. “Freedom of expression, including for the press and the general public, is fundamental to public discourse and the democratic principles that support accountability and good governance,” a statement said.

The case was brought in by Malaysia’s Attorney General Idrus Harun in June. He was appointed to the post by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who took power less than a year ago at the head of an unelected government.

Muhyiddin’s ruling coalition includes former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has been accused of withdrawing billions of dollars from a state mutual fund he once controlled.

In one of Mr. Idrus’ first acts as attorney general, the government dropped money laundering charges against Mr. Najib’s stepson Riza Aziz, a Hollywood producer. Critics said he would keep $ 83 million of the quarter billion government funds he was accused of receiving.

Mr Najib has been charged with more than 40 criminal offenses and is currently on trial in some cases. Malaysiakini and other news outlets have been reporting on the scandal for years.

“I’m terribly disappointed,” said Mr. Gan. “What crime has Malaysiakini committed that we are forced to pay 500,000 when there are individuals charged with abuse of power for millions and billions running free?”

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