Malaysia bans newspapers, raising fears of clampdown

Malaysia’s government has banned two opposition newspapers as incoming premier Najib Razak gets ready to take power, raising opposition fears of a looming clampdown.

The party papers of the People’s Justice Party (PKR) and the Malaysian Pan-Islamic Party (PAS), two of the three parties in the opposition coalition, said they received letters on Monday from the Home Ministry informing them of a three-month ban.

No reasons were specified for the ban issued by the ministry’s Quranic Texts and Publications Division in a letter faxed to the editors of PAS’ Harakah and PKR’s Suara Keadilan newspapers.

The ban came just a day before the start of party elections in the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the main party in the coalition that has ruled Malaysia for 51 years.

Those elections will see Najib, who says he wants to open up the economy to more foreign investment, confirmed as party president ahead of his transition to the post of premier, currently held by Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, early next month.

“This is clearly a clampdown on press freedom, especially since we have been one of the most critical publications at a time when both the UMNO assembly and by-elections are approaching,” said Tian Chua, a PKR official.

Home Ministry officials could not be reached for comment.

The government strictly controls the country’s print media, requiring newspapers and other publications to obtain annual permits and Malaysia’s mainstream media is mostly supportive of the National Front coalition government.

The opposition has accused Najib of corruption and has tried to link him to the murder of a Mongolian model. He has strongly denied both sets of allegations for which no evidence has been presented.

Earlier this month, an opposition MP was charged with sedition and another was banned from Parliament for labelling Najib a “murderer”.

An official at PAS’ Harakah, who declined to be named, said the newspaper had received a show-cause letter from the ministry last month for selling the newspaper in public spaces.

Harakah was originally allowed to publish twice a week, but was restricted to twice a month in 2000 in the aftermath of the sacking of deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim in 1998, an incident that triggered a political crisis in the country.

Outgoing premier Abdullah last year relaxed the conditions, allowing Harakah to resume publishing twice weekly and he granted a publication permit to PKR’s Suara Keadilan last year, after a three-year wait for approval, as part of his pledge to open up the democratic space in the country.

But some of the government’s actions in recent months have stoked fears that Najib may reverse Abdullah’s more open attitude to press freedoms and opt for hardline tactics.

Opposition lawmaker Karpal Singh was charged with sedition earlier this month while a popular blogger, Raja Petra Kamaruddin, was also charged with sedition last year for implying that Najib was involved in the murder of a Mongolian model.

“The writing is all over the wall that a clampdown is looming,” said Dzulkifli Ahmad, a PAS official.

“Najib could either allow dissent and manage it through debate, or he could use strong arm tactics to silence dissent, and the latter is what he appears to be choosing,” he added.—Reuters

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