Malaysia flag Photograph:( Reuters )
The case relates to five readers' comments on an article that criticised the judiciary. The authorities claim that this eroded public confidence in the courts
A leading Malaysian new site was fined USD 120,000 on Friday over readers' comments criticising judiciary. This has sparked concerns about worsening press freedom in the country. There are fears that independent media outlets are under attack in Malaysia ever since a coalition seized power without election last year.
Malaysiakini, a popular portal that has made a name for itself by reporting on the misdeeds of the ruling elite, and its editor-in-chief Steven Gan, were accused of contempt of court in a case brought by the attorney general.
The case relates to five readers' comments on an article that criticised the judiciary. The authorities claim that this eroded public confidence in the courts.
A panel of judges at the country's top court ruled that Malaysiakini was guilty of contempt and ordered the site to pay a 500,000 ringgit ($120,000) fine by Wednesday. Prosecutors had sought a fine of 200,000 ringgit.
Gan -- who could have faced a jail term if convicted -- was cleared, but he criticised the decision as "uncalled for".
"The hefty fine against us is really an attempt not to just shut us up -- but to shut us down," he told reporters at the Federal Court in the administrative capital Putrajaya.
After this ruling, the news portal changed to black and white as sign of protest and launched a fundraising drive.
The site appeared on track to easily get enough -- by Friday afternoon, it had raised over 450,000 ringgit.
It has faced continual attacks since it was founded in 1999, ranging from police raids to criminal prosecutions, and has so far managed to survive every challenge.
Human Rights Watch's deputy Asia director, Phil Robertson, said the ruling was "a blatant violation of freedom of expression and media freedom, and should be quashed".
The US embassy in Kuala Lumpur said it was worried about the decision and "the impact it will have on press freedom in Malaysia" while British and Canadian envoys also expressed concern.
Judge Rohana Yusuf, delivering the verdict, said freedom of expression must remain "within the bounds permissible by law".
She said the comments on the site were "reprehensible" and involved "allegations of corruption which were unproven and untrue".
It was a split decision, with one of the seven judges dissenting.
(With AFP inputs)