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CAPSULE REPORT: Debate on royal powers draws attacks and threats; bloggers Ahiruddin Attan and Jed Yoong questioned by police

(CIJ/IFEX) - The following is a 2 March 2009 report by the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), an interim member of IFEX:

Debate on royal powers draws attacks and threats in Malaysia

Police reports, bullets in the mail, angry protests and police interrogations - these are threats that have been expressed and carried out against individuals who have commented on and criticised the monarchical heads in Malaysia, who seem to have garnered more media attention as newsmakers and opinion leaders in the last two years.

As the Head of the Federation and an institution of the Malays, the royalty is largely a taboo subject for the general populace. Not unlike Thailand's lese-majeste law, the Sedition Act, which was introduced in a period of high ethnic tension, protects royals in Malaysia against defamation under its very broad provision. Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy where the sultans of nine states rotate on a five-year basis as Head of the Federation, the Yang diPertuan Agong, and perform legislative, executive and judiciary functions. At the state level, the sultans are guardians of the Islamic religion and the Malay language and customs.

The spotlight is on the northern state of Perak, where the head of the state, Sultan Azlan Shahmade, made a crucial decision to allow the ruling Federal coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), to regain control despite losing the state in the 2008 general election. The decision was made after several state assembly persons from the opposition pact, Pakatan Rakyat (PR) or People's Coalition, declared their independence and support for the BN. However, a public poll by the Merdeka Opinion Research Centre found that 74 percent of the people in Perak wanted a by-election to sort out the changes in the state representation.

Not new to questioning the monarchy, Karpal Singh, the chairman of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), one of the partners in the PR, said that he would be filing a suit against the decision of the Perak sultan at the special court for the royalty. Last year, Karpal also questioned the jurisdiction of the Perak royalty when it re-installed the head of the state Islamic council, against a transfer ordered by the state government. In both cases, Karpal's statements attracted death threats and a slew of police reports against him by individuals and members of political parties. In the latest controversy, Karpal received two bullets enclosed in a letter outlining threats to him and his family members.

Also targeted in this episode were two bloggers, Ahiruddin Attan, aka Rocky Bru, also president of the National Alliance of Bloggers, and Jed Yoong, a former writer for the DAP's publication ("Rocket"). Ahiruddin was questioned by police on 24 February over comments left on his blog about the role of the monarchy by known and anonymous commentators, while a day before the police interrogated Jed Yoong over her fiery critique of the monarchy in general in a posting on 12 February, which drew the ire of the "UMNO Virtual Club" (Kelab Maya UMNO), who lodged the police report.

Mobilized by UMNO, the dominant partner in the BN, public demonstrations in support of the monarchy were organised in Selangor, Malacca and Perak. The UMNO-owned national daily, "Utusan Malaysia", became a platform where Karpal's statements and the defiance of the former Perak Chief Minister from Pakatan Rakyat, Nizar Jamaluddin, were branded as treasonous and seditious.

The current goings-on must be viewed with scepticism regarding UMNO's agenda against the backdrop of the constitutional amendments in 1983, when the same ruling government sought to curtail the powers of the Malay rulers in the passing of legislation. At that time, UMNO led a public campaign against the royalty, which included public protests, suggestive movies on the state television stations, and exposés of royal excessiveness. The amendment was successful and royal assent of legislation is now a matter of protocol. A decade later, the same government again amended the Federal Constitution to include a special court for the rulers.

These contradictions are not highlighted at all in the mainstream media, raising the familiar spectre of political control in the newsroom. It is very clear that public discourse on the issue of the jurisdictions and powers of the royalty is tightly controlled, where UMNO-linked groups, media and individuals have the monopoly of setting and swaying the national agenda. The lack of critical journalism on constitutional and legal provisions means that those who choose to be vocal or express their disagreements are seen as anti-nationals and deserving of having their citizenship withdrawn. It is time for the public to be more mature in assessing information and their rights, and it is long overdue for the media to play its role to provide adequate and fair space for debate. Certainly, we do not want a situation where the mere mention of the royalty will draw the kinds of reactions seen in neighbouring Thailand.

For further information on a sedition complaint recently filed against Karpal Singh, see: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/93596

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