June 20, 2018
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Malaysian government unblocks media sites, raising hopes of new freedoms

Blair McBride

Kuala Lumpur, May 29 (efe-epa).- Media outlets in Malaysia were Tuesday enjoying new freedoms after the May 9 elections brought the opposition leader to power and unseated the scandal-plagued government of the Barisan Nasional coalition.

Just over a week after Mahathir Mohamad assumed office as the new prime minister, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission announced in a Facebook post that investigative journalism site Sarawak Report had been unblocked, along with Medium.

In its post, the commission said there was no longer any need to block those sites since the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) report had been made public.

Former prime minister Najib Razak is accused of diverting almost $700 million into his personal accounts from 1MDB, a government strategic development company. He denies any wrongdoing.

Najib's Barisan National-led government had ruled Malaysia for 61 years.

Sarawak Report, launched in early 2010 by British journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown focused on environmental and corruption scandals in Malaysia.

Brown told EFE that the site had been "a thorn in various people's sides in Malaysia for a few years" but that blocking a news site like hers was a red line that the authorities had not crossed.

That changed in August 2015 when Sarawak Report published a story related to the alleged transfer of 42 million ringgit ($10.5 million) from a 1MDB subsidiary into Najib's account, and the site was blocked.

The outlet circumvented the ban by posting content on mirror sites and on Medium, but Brown said after Medium refused government orders to stop hosting Sarawak Report it too was blocked.

"They made me into a martyr. It was all pretty counter-productive stuff," she said. "They revealed themselves by these actions."

Things got worse for her when in that same month, the Malaysian government asked Interpol to arrest Brown, who had been living in London since 2009.

Interpol rejected the request and Brown was blacklisted from entering Malaysia, though after May's elections she was taken off that list.

The Malaysian Insider (TMI) and its mirror site The Malaysian Outsider, also returned to the media fold as of last week, after being off the web and blocked for more than two years.

"For the first time since independence we have an environment in which people can speak their minds, publish and be damned," TMI editor Jahabar Sadiq said to EFE.

TMI, a subsidiary of The Edge Media Group came under government scrutiny around July 2015 for its coverage of the 1MDB scandal, which led to a suspension of its publishing permits, financial difficulties, and Jahabar's shuttering of the site on Mar. 15, 2016.

In the two years since the demise of TMI, Jahabar set up The Malaysian Insight news site and the Malaysia Decides election app.

Despite the unblocking of TMI, Jahabar feels it is time to face the reality of media regulation in Malaysia.

"No one should have to go through this. (The internet regulator) shouldn't be arbitrarily blocking sites without explaining why they blocked them," he said.

The lifting of media bans represents "a new era of democratic change and reform" for Malaysia, said Lawyers for Liberty Executive Director Eric Paulsen, who believes it is a matter of time until blocks are lifted on the remaining blacklisted websites.

However, Paulsen pointed out that press freedom in Malaysia is still constrained by sedition laws, The Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 and the government's power to revoke publishing licenses.

Change appears to be moving swiftly, and on Monday the new Minister of Communications and Multimedia Gobind Singh Deo said "The media is the voice of the people and the government should be prepared to accept criticism for us to be able to undertake reform," according to Bernama news agency.

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