By INS Contributors

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia--Freedom of the press in Malaysia has suffered another blow after embattled Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) commissioner initiated a defamation suit against independent investigative journalist Lalitha Kunaratnam.

The suit seeks, among other things, a public apology within 14 days, delete the articles published on INS and pay 10 million ringgit (about US 2.5 million) in damages for allegedly tarnishing Azam Baki’s reputation.

Azam himself is facing enormous pressure from the public, dozens of civil society groups as well as politicians from both the government and opposition, who have urged that Azam be placed on leave while an independent and thorough investigation be conducted to look into his extensive ownership in corporate stocks.

“I’m OK”

The commissioner, who is also on the International Anti-Corruption Academy’s board of governors, has dug in his heels against him, saying that public pressure will not influence him to leave his post.

“I'm okay, still working and not on leave. I will fight.” he told local media, while insisting that only Malaysia's King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah has the power to remove him from his post.

Azam’s move to seemingly drag the country’s respected monarch into the fray has drawn criticism from various quarters, who accuse him of not only undermining the authority of Prime Minister Ismail Sabri, but link his own survival to that of the country’s royal institution.

“The MACC’s embattled chief commissioner Azam Baki seems quite desperate and panicky. He knows that his days are numbered,” deputy chief minister of Penang state P Ramasamy said in a statement.

“It is wrong for Azam in his utter desperation to invoke the name of the Agung who is above politics. By using the name of Agung, Azam has indeed unnecessarily dragged the institution of the royalty into politics,” he added.

Malaysia’s deteriorating press freedom

Malaysia’s placing in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) fell to 119 from 101 in 2020. The World Press Freedom Index, published every year since 2002, provides a ranking and analysis of media rights in over 180 countries worldwide.

Malaysian Press Institute chief executive officer Datuk Dr Chamil Wariya said at the time that to ensure that media freedom continues to progress, the then Perikatan Nasional (PN) government needed to consider repealing restrictive laws including the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984; certain sections in the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998; Sedition Act 1948; and Official Secrets Act 1972.

“These laws have to be reviewed and, if necessary, abolished because they are seen as suppressing press freedom. We’ve proposed to the government to draft the Freedom of Information Act, as well as create the Sources Protection Act to allow journalists not to disclose the identity of their news sources for exposés on issues of public interest,” he said, adding that the government has to accept today’s reality where most people have access to the Internet and social media.

Farah Marshita Abdul Patah, president of National Union of Journalists Peninsular Malaysia (NUJM) had harsher words: “There's too much government control. There's too many laws that we need to abide to.”

Transparency rankings on negative trend

The Transparency International Corruption Perception Index in Malaysia decreased to 51 points in 2020 from 53 points in 2019, with noted historian and author Ranjit Singh Malhi saying that “senior civil servants not only lack competence but are also guilty of grossly misusing authority and power for personal gain”.

“They have no qualms about taking credit for successes not due to their efforts while blaming others, including the media, for their blunders. They are prepared to shamelessly lie to cover up their corrupt behaviour. And they proceed to reward undeserving subordinates who are ‘yes-men’ and the greatest enemy of quality improvement and the progress of the nation,” he said in an opinion piece.

What does the future hold?

Considering active efforts at pressuring and intimidating whistleblowers, journalists and civil society groups daring to speak out, it is expected that Malaysia’s rankings in press freedom and its corruption perception will continue to spiral downwards.

And yet there is hope, for so long as there are those willing to voice out the truth and to take a stand against the country’s decline, hope remains for the Southeast Asian country which was once described as an “Asian Tiger” but now resembles a bruised and battered kitten.