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Government bans media debate on constitution, law and religion

(SEAPA/IFEX) - The Malaysian government has banned the mainstream media from reporting on an explosive issue concerning the very nature of the country's constitution that points to the problematic relationship between law and religion.

Web-based daily "Malaysiakini" reports that following the Internal Security Ministry's directive on 19 July 2007, several journalists and editors contacted have already retracted some commentaries on the topic scheduled for publishing that day.

The controversy about Malaysia's political system has been brewing since former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad declared the country an "Islamic state" in a 29 September 2001 speech. It resurfaced on 17 July 2007, when Deputy Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak repeated Mahathir's assertion and added that the Muslim-majority country has never been a secular one and has always been guided by Islamic fundamentals.

Najib's claim received strong objections from opposition parties and even a member-party of the ruling front, following which the Internal Security Ministry's Publications Control and Al-Quran Texts Unit banned the media from reporting on such reactions, but permitted further assertions from Najib and Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

A ministry officer, Che Din Yusof, said responses from political parties and the public, "especially negative reactions", will not be allowed for fear of creating "tension" over a "sensitive issue", reports "Malaysiakini".

SEAPA condemns the ban and is alarmed to note the increasingly authoritarian streak of the Abdullah administration, which has been curbing legitimate voices of concern regarding the highest law of the land.

In July 2006, Abdullah banned discussions of inter-faith issues when similar concerns arose about constitutional guarantees for freedom of religion. The media was similarly banned from discussing the issue then.

The Malaysian press, bound by the draconian 1987 Printing Presses and Publications Act, which was enforced to devastating effect in a 1987 clampdown that suspended three news publications, has had little choice but to obey such government orders - a fact that had been relatively unexposed until the emergence of the Internet.

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