Rights groups won a major victory for free expression in Malaysia as a High Court lifted a three-month ban on The Edge Media Group. The decision follows months of sustained pressure by local advocacy groups in Malaysia and international organizations including Access Now. Sarawak Report, another major media organization in Malaysia, remains blocked.
This year, a corruption scandal involving the state investment fund implicated Malaysia’s Prime Minister, and led to restrictions on media and freedom of assembly. The Edge Media Group, its imprint The Edge Financial, and Sarawak Report, an English-language website, published critical stories on the scandal, drawing pressure from the government. In July, our local partners in Malaysia reported that Sarawak Report’s website was blocked by the government, and that the government withdrew The Edge Media Group’s license to print newspapers for three months. The government also issued an arrest warrant in August for Clare Rewcastle-Brown, the founder and editor-in-chief of Sarawak Report.
When the blocking first began in July, Access reached out to Malaysia’s Communications and Multimedia Commission to confirm censorship of Sarawak Report, and to urge the commission to withdraw its order to telcos mandating that they block the websites. We also joined grassroots groups advocating in support of both publications. Tensions escalated in late August, when Malaysian civil society groups organized Bersih 4.0, a large rally to promote electoral reforms, across major cities throughout the country. We supported a joint letter from international advocacy groups to urge the government to allow the rally to proceed peacefully, and to uphold the rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. (The rally went off peacefully.) We also reminded Prime Minister Najib Razak of his own promise never to censor the internet, and that internet blocking violates international law protecting the right to freedom of expression.
The High Court ruling in favor of The Edge Media Group is a positive victory for accountability and transparency in Malaysia. Importantly, the High Court also awarded compensation to Edge for RM15,000 (US$3,483) for legal costs. The court has not yet determined damages. The provision of a remedy for victims of human rights violations is a vital aspect of the U.N. Guiding Principles’ on Business and Human Rights, and a move that we support. The scandal in Malaysia once again reveals the link between corruption, disregard for the rule of law, and the abuse of the human right to free expression. Government attorneys have one month to appeal the decision.
The fight is not yet over. We will continue to pressure authorities to lift the block on Sarawak Report as well. You can sign a joint petition here, or follow us on Twitter or on Facebook for updates on Malaysia and digital rights across the globe.
UPDATE 9/22/2015: This post was updated to clarify that the High Court awarded costs but has not yet ruled on damages.
Photo: AK Rockefeller on Creative Commons