Malaysian news portal sues over publishing knockback

KUALA LUMPUR, September 29, 2010 (AFP) - Malaysia's leading online news portal Malaysiakini said Wednesday it has launched a legal challenge after authorities rejected its application for a permit to publish a newspaper.

The pioneering website has over the past decade become a leading source of information in the Southeast Asian nation, where major newspapers and broadcasters are largely government-linked.

Malaysiakini -- which focuses on politics, corruption and social issues including race relations -- filed a case in the High Court Tuesday, challenging the home ministry's decision to reject its request.

"I don't see why we shouldn't be allowed to publish a newspaper," its chief executive Premesh Chandran told AFP.

"It's a constitutional right and Malaysiakini has been around for 10 years, we have a proven track record for being independent, balanced and credible."

All newspapers in Malaysia need a permit which must be renewed annually. The licensing system allows the government to close media outlets at will and puts publishers under pressure to toe the line.

Malaysiakini and other online media have remained relatively free -- despite occasional raids, bans and government criticism -- due to a government pledge not to censor the Internet, made in the mid-90s to attract foreign investment.

Chandran said Malaysiakini, which has 1.8 million readers per month, wants to launch a newspaper to reach out to a wider audience. Its online portal's operation is not affected by the ministry's decision.

"This is a sign that there is no change (by the government). This is a continuation of policy to have strict control over the print and broadcast media," he said.

Prime Minister Najib Razak took office last year with promises to promote openness and transparency, but has since faced claims that his administration is trying to silence critics.

Home ministry officials could not be reached for comment but said in a letter to Malaysiakini dated August 19 that "the ministry has decided not to consider" the permit application. No reasons were given.

A media watchdog, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), criticised the decision as a violation of media freedom and said the licensing laws are open to abuse.

"It's a lot of power to give to one person and there is no accountability because the minister has absolute discretion and does not need to provide any reason to grant or deny a permit," CIJ executive officer Masjaliza Hamzah said.

"It points to a larger picture where the government is asserting its control on freedom of expression in Malaysia," she added.

Masjazliza cited recent cases including the detention of a cartoonist hours before the release of his new book which lampooned the government, and opposition media's difficulties in renewing their permits.