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GOVERNMENT HOUNDS BLOGGERS THAT CRITICISE ROYALTY

Eight people have been charged with criticising on the Internet Malaysia's Sultan of Perak, as the authorities stepped up a crackdown on bloggers, reports IFEX interim member the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) as well as Amnesty International.

On 13 March, the government carried out a nationwide swoop on bloggers and charged six for "insulting" the Perak royal family on various blogs on the Internet.

The following week, businessman Fuad Ariff Abdul Rashid and his lawyer wife, Fatimah Maisurah Abdullah, were charged with two counts of posting critical comments against the Sultan on the ruler's official website, reports Amnesty International.

"(We) are 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," said CIJ and Malaysia's Writers Alliance for Media Independence (WAMI).

The offences carry a maximum fine of 50,000 Ringgits (US$13,800) or up to a year in jail under the country's Communication and Media Act. But provisions of the act itself guarantee that it should not be used to censor the Internet, says CIJ. This is the first time the law has been used to charge people for comments posted online.

Of the eight people charged, one has already pleaded guilty and been fined 10,000 Ringgits (US$2,800). The seven others are awaiting trial after being released on bail.

The charges against the eight come during an ongoing power struggle for the Perak state government. In a controversial move, the Sultan of Perak accepted the defection of three state assembly members from the opposition, which allowed the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition to regain control - despite having lost the state in the 2008 general election.

BN, which rules nationally, has been accused of trying to shut down debate about the role of the monarchy.

"The Internet was one of the few venues available for Malaysians to express their views relatively freely, and now it looks like the government will extend its restrictions on free press to the web," said Amnesty. "For a country that claims to be on the cutting edge of communications technology, this is a very troubling step backward."

As the head of the federation and a Malay institution, the royalty is largely a taboo subject in Malaysia. Like 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.

Opposition parliamentarian and lawyer Karpal Singh has been charged with sedition for his threat to sue the Sultan of Perak over the political crisis in Perak, say CIJ and Amnesty.

He has received death threats, and been mobbed by angry youth members of UMNO (United Malays National Organisation), leader of the ruling coalition. But according to Amnesty, Malaysia's 13,000-strong Bar Council has defended Singh's right to voice his opinion.

Visit these links:
- CIJ: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/101651
- Amnesty: http://tinyurl.com/d5765z
- IFEX Malaysia page: http://tinyurl.com/3o3ywy
(25 March 2009)

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