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AUTHORITIES USE SEDITION ACT TO MUZZLE CRITICS

In the past week, Malaysia has been using threats of sedition - a criminal offence punishable by up to three years in jail - to silence critics and members of the opposition, say the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), its affiliate in Malaysia the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

First, prominent blogger Raja Petra Raja Kamaruddin was charged with sedition on 6 May for writing an article that implied the Deputy Prime Minister was involved in a high-profile murder, report SEAPA and CPJ.

A few days earlier, police had raided his house, seizing a laptop and a computer before summoning him for questioning.

Raja Petra has pleaded not guilty to the charge, telling reporters that he should have the right to hold the powerful accountable. He was freed on bail Friday after three days in police custody.

Petra's trial is scheduled for October. If convicted, he could be fined 5,000 Malaysian Ringgits (US$1,600) and jailed for up to three years.

The sedition charge stems from a 25 April article titled "Let's send the Altantuya murderers to hell" that Raja Petra posted on his popular website Malaysia Today. The article implies that Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife were involved in the 2006 killing of Altantuya Shaariibuu, a Mongolian interpreter. A close associate of Najib is charged with abetting the murder, while two police officers have been accused of killing the translator and blowing up her body.

Raja Petra's controversial online allegations about the inner workings of the ruling elite have garnered him a huge following - especially since his blog offers an alternative to mainstream media, which are controlled or closely linked to political parties. Dozens of opposition members and bloggers gathered to show support for Raja Petra outside the Kuala Lumpur court where he was charged. They raised 44,000 Malaysian Ringgits (US$13,700) for his bail within three days through an online campaign, SEAPA reports.

"Controversial reporting, even when it involves the highest levels of government, does not justify the government's resorting to charges like sedition," says CPJ. "Sedition charges against journalists have no place in a democratic society. If Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife feel they have been libelled, they should bring a civil lawsuit."

In a separate case, Syed Akbar, an entrepreneur as well as an author and former newspaper columnist, was charged over his online response last June to another article by Raja Petra, "Malaysia's organised crime syndicate: All roads lead to Putrajaya", reports SEAPA. His trial will begin on 6 June.

Meanwhile, Malaysian police are investigating an opposition party leader after the Prime Minister and other ruling party officials accused him of making insulting and seditious remarks about one of the country's sultans, say SEAPA and news reports.

Karpal Singh, chair of the Democratic Action Party, sparked an uproar when he claimed that the Sultan of Perak had acted beyond his authority by reinstating a religious official who was fired by an opposition alliance that wrested control of Perak in the March elections.

Malaysia's royalty consists of nine state sultans who rule nine of the 14 states of Malaysia. They perform ceremonial duties, including appointing state chief ministers.

Civil society groups in Malaysia have criticised the Sedition Act as an outdated colonial legacy whose overbroad provisions were meant to prevent any criticism against the authorities and stifle debate.

Visit these links:
- SEAPA: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/93596/
- CPJ: http://tinyurl.com/4h2se7
- CIJ: http://www.cijmalaysia.org/content/view/318/1/
- Malaysia Today: http://www.malaysia-today.net/
- AP: http://tinyurl.com/3mn888
(13 May 2008)

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