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Lawyers blast Anwar for 'doesn't matter' stand on Malaysia’s plunge in press freedom ranking

Prime minister is again urged to stop hiding behind the royal institution to crack down on critics.

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Anwar Ibrahim and Communications Minister Fahmi Fadzil joined on stage by several journalists at a government-backed event for media practitioners on May 27, 2024, Kuching.
Anwar Ibrahim and Communications Minister Fahmi Fadzil joined on stage by several journalists at a government-backed event for media practitioners on May 27, 2024, Kuching.

Lawyers for Liberty (LFL) has condemned Anwar Ibrahim for his dismissal of Malaysia's poor ranking in the latest global press freedom index, saying the prime minister continues to hide behind the so-called "3Rs" excuse to justify the government's crackdown on dissent.

"This response was embarrassing, dishonest and totally unacceptable," said LFL director Zaid Malek.

"Coming from a sitting prime minister, it smacks of arrogance. It is the kind of response that one would expect from a leader of a banana republic."

Speaking at a government-sponsored annual gathering for journalists yesterday, Anwar said he did not mind that Malaysia had been downgraded in the World Press Freedom Index 2024 as the government was cracking down on "racists and religious fanatics".

"I don't mind, it does not matter, if we are downgraded because we are tough against the racists and the religious bigots," he said to applause from the audience at the National Journalists' Day event in Kuching.

The government has often invoked the 3Rs - race, religion and royalty - to crack down on its critics, many of whom have been charged with sedition.

Earlier this month, Malaysia was ranked 107th in the World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a drop of 34 places from 73rd last year.

The index is based on events in 2023 and is the first assessment of press freedom under Anwar's coalition government.

The index, which assesses media and journalism freedom in 180 countries, gave Malaysia a low score of 52.07 compared to 62.83 last year.

LFL reminded Anwar that the real reasons for the drop in the ranking had nothing to do with 3R.

"In fact, the real basis of RSF’s report on Malaysia was the blocking of news portals that are critical of the government such as Utusan TV, TV Pertiwi, MalaysiaNow etc.

"TikTok videos of government critics have also been blocked by the MCMC," Zaid said, referring to the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, the agency under Communications Minister Fahmi Fadzil which has frequently blocked websites critical of the government.

Giving an example, LFL said Anwar had given the excuse of trying to defend the Agong in the police's questioning of Bloomberg journalists over its report that he had held talks with tycoons to open Malaysia's second casino in Johor.

"But in fact, public criticism in that matter was focused on the PM’s alleged involvement in talks on opening a casino, and not the king."

Zaid said Anwar has been using the Agong "as a convenient wall of defence for the government crackdown".

"How can there be freedom of press when all criticism of the establishment is swept under the convenient category of 3R?

"He assumes the public is blind to this deceit, but it is plain for everyone to see. This is why the country’s press ranking has fallen under his prime-ministership."

Zaid reminded Anwar of Article 10 of the constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech.

"By smearing any criticism of the government as inciting racial hatred or stirring sentiments against the royal institution, the government is in effect making the right to free speech meaningless and illusory. This makes the government itself the biggest offender against the Constitution."

Anwar's government began restricting free speech shortly after coming to power in November 2022, with Fahmi frequently threatening platforms such as TikTok to take down contents critical of Putrajaya's policies.

In June last year, MalaysiaNow was blocked for 48 hours without any notice.

TV Pertiwi and Utusan TV had their websites blocked as well, in addition to a blog run by former MP Wee Choo Keong.

Last year, Wee was granted leave to file a judicial review against MCMC for blocking access to his blog.

The series of actions prompted RSF to warn Putrajaya against the government's crackdown on freedom of expression.

"RSF is very concerned by this wave of suspensions by Malaysian authorities, without any explanations or judicial control, of news websites critical of the government," RSF Asia-Pacific Bureau director Cedric Alviani said last September.