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Amid condemnation, block lifted from MalaysiaNow but govt's press freedom record takes a dive

The episode raises questions on the current government's treatment of the media despite a minister denying any involvement.

5 minute read

A block that rendered the MalaysiaNow news website inaccessible to a large section of internet users in the country appeared to have ended this afternoon, after a barrage of criticism directed at the government with embattled Communications and Digital Minister Fahmi Fadzil claiming no responsibility.

Checks show that the users of TM-Unifi, Maxis and Celcom are now able to access the website, following a block that saw those using the three major internet service providers unable to access the site since Tuesday.

MalaysiaNow's own checks confirmed that its website had been blocked, raising questions over the possible involvement of those with jurisdictional powers on restricting website access.

The portal is also awaiting a report from global cybersecurity firm Cloudflare.

"While we are relieved that the site is accessible again to Malaysians, we will not rest until we find the culprit behind this coincidence affecting several major ISPs. In the digital world, everything can be tracked, and we will know soon," said MalaysiaNow editor Abdar Rahman Koya.

Fahmi, who drew condemnation this week for threatening members of the public with police action if they did not "behave themselves", has denied issuing instructions for any news portal to be blocked.

But many on social media took the statement with a pinch of salt, especially given his apparent penchant for trying to silence media outlets carrying content unfavourable to the government.

The block on MalaysiaNow was the first time since 2016 that a news portal with media accreditation was subject to a systematic ban on access across several major ISPs.

In 2016, news portal The Malaysian Insider was blocked after a series of reports on the 1MDB scandal. The site was shut down some weeks later.

Fahmi's denial meanwhile fuelled suspicion among activists and observers.

"Censorship does not reflect confidence, nor is it in tandem with broadening democracy. A better approach is to present alternative narratives and protect media freedom," said political analyst Bridget Welsh on Twitter.

Wan Saiful Wan Jan, the Perikatan Nasional shadow minister for  the communications and digital portfolio, issued a strongly worded statement condemning the block of MalaysiaNow, and urged foreign observers to stop giving "the benefit of doubt" to Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim's administration.

"Anwar's administration is not only incompetent, but they also abuse enforcement agencies to silence those who expose their incompetence," said the vocal Tasek Gelugor MP.

"Observers, national and international, should know by now that Anwar and his administration are nowhere near the reformist they pretend to be.

"We should realise that this is Anwar's true colours. He is vengeful, draconian and incompetent," said Wan Saiful, adding that Fahmi's outburst at those making anti-government statements was symptomatic "of this administration's attitude towards free speech".

A journalists' group and several activists also condemned the block, while some uploaded proof that MalaysiaNow was being blocked despite Fahmi’s denials.

Gerakan Media Merdeka urged Fahmi's ministry and its agency, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), to come clean, citing findings on an online connectivity tool that the website had been blocked through DNS tampering.

"DNS tampering is a common method used in Malaysia to censor 'undesirable' online content including pornography, online gambling and violent extremist sites.

"Any form of online news or legitimate opinions clearly should not be subjected to such censorship," said the group.

An ex-aide to Muhyiddin Yassin meanwhile mocked critics who had condemned the Covid-19 state of emergency imposed under the former prime minister, saying the press was free even during that period.

"Even during the emergency, we didn't resort to such actions. Malaysiakini, Malaysia esok, Malaysia lusa, all were free to report," quipped Marzuki Mohamad.

"It seems that these days are more of an emergency. I don't even know what sort of emergency it is. It could be the OPR increase emergency, the electricity tariff hike emergency, goods prices hike emergency. Even a stick of lemang these days costs RM20."

One political commentator said MalaysiaNow was probably targeted due to its reports on a recent incident during a dialogue with students, where Anwar jokingly asked a female student for her number, drawing outrage from the public.

Yaakob Osman also referred to a report by the portal on Fahmi's TikTok Live session where the politician had threatened critics of the government with police action.

"My advice to MalaysiaNow, it's better to just flatter those at the top, that's what they want," he wrote.

Meanwhile, seasoned journalist Gobind Rudra said the episode faced by MalaysiaNow exposed those who had championed press freedom in the past, adding that Fahmi enjoyed playing a "bully" while using government media "who provide the kind of obsequious servility and non-stop airtime he seems to crave".

"It is a far cry from the day Anwar Ibrahim stood before a sea of supporters on the Esplanade Padang and proclaimed that when Pakatan Harapan got into Putrajaya, 'Kami free the media. Next day!'

"Many, many next days have come and gone, Anwar. And the only thing that you have given us is a pipsqueak Goebbels," Rudra wrote on Facebook.

Political scoops

MalaysiaNow was launched in September 2020 by a small team of experienced journalists who have been with various online portals over the years.

It has been behind several political scoops and exposes over the past three years.

In October 2020, it revealed a letter to the palace jointly signed by Umno leaders Najib Razak and Ahmad Zahid Hamidi in support of Anwar's bid to take over the government in the midst of the pandemic.

In November 2021, meanwhile, MalaysiaNow exposed the government's plan to "gift" Najib with a 2.8-acre residential property worth RM100 million in one of Kuala Lumpur's most exclusive neighbourhoods, a move which drew protests from several Cabinet ministers at that time including Khairy Jamaluddin and Mohamed Azmin Ali.

The portal also leaked a telephone conversation between Zahid and Anwar, which showed how they had planned to set the tone of the Umno general assembly in cutting ties with Perikatan Nasional.

Last year, MalaysiaNow reported privileges accorded to Anwar during his 40-plus-month imprisonment for sodomy, as a debate brewed on special treatment for Najib who had just started serving his sentence at Kajang Prison.

The report, among others, said the politician had spent a considerable amount of time outside the prison walls, and was allowed a stream of visitors, "unprison-like" furniture and countless out-of-jail trips.

Earlier this month, MalaysiaNow quoted sources, who said maritime experts had warned Putrajaya against signing a border agreement with Indonesia, ahead of a trip by President Joko Widodo.

Anwar has since denied that the treaty was conclusive, despite earlier statements by Jokowi celebrating the end of an 18-year old maritime dispute.

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