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Malaysia court gets joke, drops case against blogger

The Malaysian power company took this blog seriously.

In September 2010 we posted an alert about criminal charges being brought against Malaysian blogger Irwan Abdul Rahman. He was accused of "intent to hurt" because of a March 2010 satirical entry on his blog, nose4news, that made fun of Malaysia's state-run power company Tenaga (TNB). The charges were brought by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), which was formed in 1998 as the country's online media industry began to emerge.

Rahman's post, "TNB to sue WWF over Earth Hour," was pretty funny. He joked that the power company might take legal action against the World Wildlife Fund over its annual energy-saving initiative. (Personally, I find Rahman's most recent coverage of the case, Hassan Skodeng a free baboon! even funnier.)

But MCMC's response was definitely not funny. Rahman faced up to a year in prison and a fine of 50,000 ringgit (US$16,000) under the Multimedia and Communications Act of 1998. He deleted the Tenaga post from his blog after the criminal complaint was made. In our alert, we said, among other things that "The Sessions Court hearing his case should dismiss this charge immediately."

Well, it didn't happen immediately. It took almost a year, but the Petaling Jaya Sessions Court did dismiss the charges on Tuesday, noting that there were no grounds for prosecution. As Rahman points out in his post on the case, having the case discharged does not amount to an acquittal. Almost one year for Rahman to get out from under the pressure of a court case. Is that just Malaysian justice slowly grinding forward? Possibly. 

But it's also one year of intimidation for one blogger who dared to poke fun at a powerful government-run institution. Lingering in the back of every Malaysian journalist's mind, the case was and remains chilling.

In last year's alert we noted: "Beginning in 1996, the Malaysian government pledged not to censor online content as part of a campaign to promote its information technology sector. Online news sites and blogs, while operating with relative freedom in Malaysia's otherwise repressive press climate, have still faced legal harassment at times from officials, individuals, and corporations, CPJ research has shown."

And in 2008, Shawn Crispin, our senior Southeast Asia representative, noted in a special report, "Malaysia's Risk-Takers," that the government had not lived up to its promise not to censor the Internet. Three years after Shawn's analysis, and eight years after the end of strongman Prime Minster Mahathir Mohammed's 22-year authoritarian rule, Malaysia has yet to emerge as a country with a truly free press.

And that's no joke.

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