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Six people charged with "insulting" royalty online

(CIJ/IFEX) - The following is a 13 March 2009 statement by the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), an interim member of IFEX:

Stop online censorship and harassment

The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) and the Writers Alliance for Media Independence (WAMI) are alarmed that six people have been charged for making online comments that allegedly insulted the Perak state royal family. In charging them under the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (CMA), the prosecutors have breached the Act's stated guarantee that it would not be used to censor the Internet. CIJ and WAMI are also worried that the charges may signal the start of a clampdown on online expression and an erosion of the right to discuss the role of the Malaysian royalty.

On 13 March 2009, local media outlets reported that six people had been charged under section 233(1) of the CMA and section 34 of the Penal Code for "insulting" the Perak royalty in various blogs. The broadly worded section 233(1) penalises the "improper use of facilities or network service, etc." and provides for a jail term of one year and a fine of up to RM50,000 (approx. US$13,535).

In the capital, Kuala Lumpur, lab assistant Azrin Mohd Zain, 33, was sentenced to a fine of RM10,000 (approx. US$ 2,707) or, in default, five months in jail after he pleaded guilty to the charge against him. The other individuals charged, who are from all over the country, have opted to go to trial.

CIJ and WAMI are deeply concerned that a precedent has been set for online censorship using the same law that is supposed to protect the free flow of information online. It goes against Malaysia's commitment to "no Internet censorship", legislated in section 3(3) of the CMA and in the Multimedia Bill of Guarantees. The violation of this commitment is a sign that the government, which is on the brink of a change in prime ministers, is becoming more authoritarian.

The charges against the six also come during an ongoing power struggle for the Perak state government between the controversially ousted People's Pact and the incumbent National Front. CIJ and WAMI question whether penalising public discussion on the fallibility of the monarchy is also an attempt by the National Front, which is the federal ruling party, to stop discussion about its own role in the political crisis. CIJ and WAMI condemn the charges against the six, and the reports that further action will be taken, as moves aimed at spreading fear and silencing the Malaysian public.

CIJ and WAMI call for all charges to be dropped and for no further action to be taken against the online commentators. The two organisations call for freedom of expression, guaranteed under Article 10 of the Federal Constitution, to be respected.

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