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Government minister demands compensation, threatens to sue newspaper for defamation over article alleging corruption

(SEAPA/IFEX) - A top Malaysian politician from the ruling party is threatening to sue an independent web-based daily for publishing articles linking him and his family with corruption.

In a letter hand-delivered on 19 April 2007, Abdul Taib Mahmud, the chief minister of the state of Sarawak, issued a 48-hour ultimatum to malaysiakini.com ( http://www. malaysiakini.com ) to stop publishing "defamatory words". He is also demanding a published retraction and apology as well as a "substantial sum" as "compensation" for the alleged damage caused to his reputation, failing which legal action will be taken against the daily, he warns.

Malaysiakini.com published, between 6 and 14 April, a series of articles that questioned an apparent link between dubious practices in the state's timber trade and businesses connected to the chief ministers' family, following a Japanese newspaper's exposé about tax evasion by several Japanese companies transporting timber from the state.

"The words contained in the . . . articles clearly referred to our client and were highly defamatory of our client . . . These baseless allegations have lowered our client's reputation in the estimation of the public and exposed him to hatred, contempt and ridicule," read the letter from Shearn Delamore & Co, the legal firm representing Taib.

Malaysiakini.com editor-in-chief Steven Gan is standing by the reports. "As journalists, we have a duty to report on such matters, which are of public interest," he said. "If by filing the lawsuit, Taib hopes to intimidate us, he is dead wrong. When we go to court, we have a long list of witnesses whom we plan to call - starting with the Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA) and Japan's tax authorities."

The story, first exposed by "Japan Times" on 29 March in an article entitled "Wood carriers allegedly hid 1.1 billion yen income", has been reported on in other Japanese newspapers as well as Hong Kong and Malaysian media.

SEAPA calls on the Malaysian government and public to recognise and respect the crucial role of the media as a watchdog for official wrongdoing and corruption, which necessarily subjects public officials to the rigours of higher scrutiny and criticism.

SEAPA joins its Malaysian partner Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) in urging the minister to "desist from suing Malaysiakini.com and counter the scepticism raised by answering to the public".

In a 23 April statement, CIJ said, "While respecting the right of the individual to seek protection from defamation, CIJ is concerned that the high-handedness of the minister violates the public's right to know about an issue of public interest. The legal threat would have a chilling effect on press freedom and prevent the press from their duty to report to the public."

Taib is making similar demands of opposition party Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and its two Sarawak leaders, Wan Zainal Wan Sanusi and See Chee How, who distributed leaflets containing the articles in the Sarawak capital of Kuching following a media blackout on this issue in the state.

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