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Malaysia 19 January 2007

New Straits Times staffers sue two bloggers

Reporters Without Borders has written to the CEO of the country’s leading English-language newspaper, the New Straits Times, Syed Faisal Albar, urging him to intervene on behalf of two bloggers against whom four of the paper’s senior staff are bringing defamation cases.

"You will surely accept that, even if they do not share your opinions, the disappearance of the blogs produced by these two outspoken bloggers, Jeff Ooi and Ahiruddin Attan, would be a loss to the Malaysian media world," the worldwide press freedom organisation said, in an open letter on 19 January.

Jeff Ooi, who runs one of the country’s most popular blogs Screenshots, first received an e-mail from a law firm representing the New Straits Times asking him to delete 13 items on his blog which were deemed defamatory. It came in the form of an ex-parte injuction from the high court applied by the New Strait Times and three New Straits Times staff. The case is due to be heard on 30 January.

The same action has been taken against Ahiruddin Attan, who runs Rockybru, and is due to appear in court on 25 January. The blogger said that in his case it was linked to a column in which he accused some journalists on the New Strait Times of being agents of Singapore.

"We believe that this case is groundless," said Reporters Without Borders. "It looks to us as though legal procedures are being used as a way of silencing two of your newspaper’s critics."

"You will certainly agree that bloggers have the right, as have journalists, to comment on the news and to expose practices which appear to them to be amoral or illegal. We remind you that these people, who are not backed by any press group, are particularly vulnerable to any judicial proceedings. A heavy fine could force them to halt publication.

"(...) We hope therefore that you will intervene on behalf of these two bloggers with the plaintiffs, especially the New Straits Times editorial advisor, Kalimullah Hassan, which whom you work closely. Halting this judicial procedure will benefit both parties. We are convinced that you will respond to our appeal and make it a point of honour to defend press freedom in your country," the letter concluded.

Reporters Without Borders regularly speaks out against the marked media concentration in Malaysia, where most publications are controlled by investors close to the government, pushing journalists into self-censorship. The largest group, Media Prima, was previously owned by the main ruling party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). Still today, Media Prima is partly owned by the Malaysia Resources Corporation Berhad, which has close links to the party and government. Media Prima owns the New Straits Times, the second biggest Malay-language paper, Berita Harian, as well as Maly Mail, Harian Metro and the Shin Min Daily News. Media Prima also has four terrestrial TV stations.

Malaysia is listed 92nd out of 168 on Reporters Without Borders’ 2006 Worldwide press freedom index.

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