The Malaysian police Monday seized 15 PCs and four servers worth RM150,000 (US$39,500) from the office of online news provider Malaysiakini.com, prompting angry reactions from both the online news daily's editor-in-chief and chief executive officer.
Malaysiakini, which was established in 1999, is considered by many Malaysians to be the country's only independent online news daily. Unlike the print and electronic media, Malaysiakini is free of licensing requirements for publishing news in the country because the government had pledged there would be no control and censorship of Internet content in line with the government's move to create the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) -- Malaysia's answer to Silicon Valley.
However, the Malaysian police, acting based on a police report lodged last Friday by the Youth wing of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party--the dominant component party in the country's ruling coalition known as the National Front--said that the machines were seized for purposes of "forensic examination."
The police said they were investigating the UMNO Youth report, which alleged that a letter written by a Malaysiakini reader contained "false allegations." The letter was published on Jan. 9 on Malaysiakini's website at http://www.malaysiakini.com.
In its police report, UMNO Youth claimed that the letter had questioned the special rights and privileges of the Malay race that are enshrined in the Constitution and that the letter also contained false allegations that the Malaysian government was unfair to other ethnic races in the country.
One of the country's national dailies, The New Straits Times, quoted UMNO Youth information chief Azimi Daim as saying at a press conference last Friday that the letter also accused the Malaysian government of neglecting the interests of the Orang Asli (the indigenous peoples or aboriginals).
In addition, Azimi said, the alleged letter had equated the UMNO Youth wing with the white supremacist group Ku Klux Klan of the U.S.
Azimi also said that Malaysiakini should have censored the letter and urged the Home Ministry to act against media organizations that failed to do so.
The 10-member police team led by Superintendent Mohd Kamaruddin Md Din, head of the police force's Bukit Aman computer crime unit, arrived unannounced at Malaysiakini's office at about 12:30 p.m. Monday local time. Several senior police officers held a 90-minute discussion with Malaysiakini's editor-in-chief Steven Gan and chief executive officer Premesh Chandran before moving into action.
The police team took four hours to record details of the staff and also compiled a list of items that were to be taken away.
The move has effectively shut down Malaysiakini's editorial operations pending the return of the equipment. However, emergency measures are being taken to continue publication online within 24 hours, said company officials.
At a press conference after the raid, Gan described the action as an excuse to shut down Malaysiakini, saying the letter that was published on the website was not seditious in nature but only "a comparative study based on facts."
"The government's pledge not to censor the Internet has been shot to pieces," Gan said.
"This is a malicious attempt by the authorities to shut down the website as the police insisted on taking away computers which are totally unrelated to their investigation," he added.
Malaysiakini's Chandran accused the police of acting unfairly in refusing to discuss any compromise.
"Their action is clearly not to investigate sedition but to disable our operations as the country's independent news provider. We know that this is an election year and that UMNO and the government feel that Malaysiakini is a threat," he said.
Malaysiakini's legal advisor R. Sivarasa said police action in seizing the computers was unreasonable and done in bad faith.
"The police know that the servers are necessary for the company's operations. We offered to give them a written undertaking that nothing in the servers would be altered or any evidence erased. However, this was brusquely refused," he said.
Premesh added that this rejection was unreasonable as the police report was lodged last week and if the editorial team had wanted to change anything stored in the server, they would have done so long before the police came yesterday.