Malaysia's strike on freedoms

In the past week, the government has arrested opposition politicians and tampered with the press.

What do financier George Soros, the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, and an obscure riot in a Malaysian detention center have in common?

They're all being used in an apparent campaign by Malaysia's government-run press to undermine the credibility of Malaysiakini, an online newspaper that got started in 1999. It's become known as the most credible media voice in the country, taking advantage of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's promise to never censor the Internet.

But the clampdown, which is even broader than on Malaysiakini, is a testament to the government's commitment to control the political climate here. And that's what experts say has helped keep Dr. Mahathir in power since 1981.

What may happen now, however, is that the government's effort may backfire. To be sure, the only measurable consequences for Malaysiakini so far have been positive. Traffic to its site has doubled to 200,000 hits a day in the past month, thanks to all the publicity.

Malaysiakini's story began as Malaysia's reform movement geared up in the wake of the 1998 arrest of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, Mahathir's former deputy, on sodomy charges. Malaysiakini became an important outlet of independent information.

In the 1999 general elections, Mahathir's ruling coalition suffered losses due to growing public anger over the persecution of Mr. Anwar and official corruption.

Malaysiakini's problems began in February, when the Far Eastern Economic Review reported that Malaysiakini had received funding from Mr. Soros' Open Society Institute. Since Soros was fashioned into a sort of financial monster by Malaysia after the regional currency collapses of 1997, that gave an opening to Mahathir.

The prime minister said "loyal Malaysians" should stop reading Malaysiakini because of the alleged link to Soros. Mahathir frequently uses Soros, a Jew, to whip up antiforeign sentiment in predominantly Muslim Malaysia.

"The government is very worried about the people power they have seen in Indonesia and the Philippines," says Tian Chua, Justice Party vice president.

The pressure Mahathir is facing was illustrated over the weekend, as Malaysia's worst race riots in a generation spontaneously broke out between ethnic Malays, Malaysia's majority race, and ethnic Indians, who make up 8 percent of the population, near Kuala Lumpur.

Last week, a total of 14 opposition politicians were arrested, among them Ezam Mohamad Noor, the head of the youth wing of jailed opposition leader Anwar's Justice Party, who has been accused of sedition. The distribution of some foreign magazines has also been restricted. In the past year, three independent publications have been shuttered. The big newspapers are either controlled by the government or by the ruling coalition's allies.

"Not only is [Ezam's] arrest against general human rights principles, this is also a deliberate attempt to harass the opposition with something abstract like sedition," says the Justice Party vice president, Mr. Tian.

But it is the campaign against Malaysiakini that could have the furthest reaching consequences.

"[Mahathir] has kept to his promise. But it looks like they are looking for other means to break us down," says Steven Gan, Malaysiakini's editor in chief.

"We are under intense pressure from Mahathir's calling us traitors, and it is alarming," says Mr. Gan, adding he receives no funding from the Open Society Institute. "Judging by what happened to the Justice Party youth chief, we have to be worried."

Ezam was taken into custody after a paper owned by Mahathir's United Malay National Organization quoted him saying he'd like to overthrow the government. The Justice Party says his words were taken out of context.

"The mainstream media and the police have become partners in supporting a government bent on establishing a farcical democracy," the Alternative Front opposition group said in a statement on Ezam's arrest.

A spokesman for Mahathir said he had no comment on Gan's charges of a campaign against his publication.

But the official press has quickly followed Mahathir's lead. Last week, government-owned television carried file footage of Gan and Malaysiakini's chief executive officer Premesh Chandran being arrested for protesting the agenda at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, labeling them "radicals."

Two weeks ago, state television carried a piece accusing Gan of inflating the number of people killed in a 1998 detention center riot - a riot Gan says he didn't cover.

"This Soros stuff has been the first real opportunity to go after Malaysiakini, and they've taken it," says Lin Neumann, Asia representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists, which gave Malaysiakini its International Press Freedom Award last year.

Malaysiakini has rapidly become one of the country's most popular news sources. That success is beginning to make Malaysiakini look like a threat.

"They're not a mouthpiece for the opposition or for foreign interests," says Mr. Neumann. "They're a little band of Internet journalists in a country where speaking your mind has become a crime."

Spokesmen for the minister of information, who oversees government television, and for the home affairs minister, who oversees the distribution of foreign media, did not return calls for comment.

But new restrictions have been added on other fronts, as well. For the past month, Malaysia's Home Affairs Ministry has delayed the distribution of Asiaweek and the Far Eastern Economic Review by up to two weeks. The press office at the Home Affairs Ministry didn't return calls.

The slowdowns follow Mahathir's complaints in February that Asiaweek had deliberately used a photograph that made him look like "an idiot." Three days later, Malaysia said it would form a committee to handle "inaccurate" reports in the foreign press.

Asiaweek executive editor Rick Hornik says Malaysia hasn't explained why distribution has been held up.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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