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The Malaysian Insider: 'The authorities want us to toe the official line'

Jahabar Sadiq was one of the three editors and two executives with The Malaysian Insider news website arrested last week on sedition charges. Jahabar now speaks to DW about the case and freedom of speech in Malaysia.

Last week, Malaysian police arrested five journalists on charges of sedition, including publisher and group CEO of The Edge Media Group, Ho Kay Tat, and chief executive of the group's The Malaysian Insider news portal, Jahabar Sadiq, over an article on the implementation of Islamic sharia law. Although the men were released just hours after the arrests, critics view the incident as an attempt to stifle freedom of the press in the Southeast Asian country.

The article published on March 24 said the Conference of Rulers - which comprises the sultans of nine Malay states and governors of four other states - had rejected a proposal to amend a federal law that could allow the use of strict Islamic punishment, or hudud, in Malaysia. The following day, an official representing the Conference reportedly filed a police report, denying the issue had been discussed.

Just days after the incident, a Malaysian political cartoonist who goes by the pen name Zunar was charged with nine counts of sedition over a series of tweets criticizing the country's judiciary. He now faces up to 43 years in jail if found guilty on all nine charges under the colonial-era law.

In a DW interview, Jahabar Sadiq says with the recent arrests the authorities appear to want to send the message that all media are to toe the official line and not report all sides of any issue. While there is a fair amount of freedom of expression in the country, he adds, the issue isn't so much what is said but who gets to say it.

Gericht Putraya Malaysia 23.06.2014

The Conference of Rulers in Malaysia has control over Malay and Islamic issues

DW: Under which circumstances were you and four other members of the media group were arrested?

Jahabar Sadiq: The arrests took place six days after The Malaysian Insider reported that the Conference of Rulers - the highest body of state rulers in Malaysia (there are nine of them) - had rejected a report looking into hudud or Islamic criminal laws being imposed for Muslims in Malaysia.

The law had been passed in one state - Kelantan - but cannot be implemented until the Federal Constitution is amended to allow another penal law apart from the federal penal code. The rulers have control over Malay and Islamic issues - hence their approval is needed for such laws to be even considered.

Why do you believe the report was regarded as controversial?

The report is seen as controversial as Muslims by faith have to accept Islamic criminal laws or hudud. Some of the laws and punishments are contained in the Koran and Muslims are bound by the Koran when practicing their faith.

The report was about rejection of a technical report which is seen as a direct conflict of what Muslims believe. All state rulers are Muslims and therefore cannot be seen to be rejecting Islamic laws.

You and the others were arrested on suspicion of sedition and the offices of The Malaysian Insider were raided. How is this related to the news report?

Sedition laws say that anything that causes disaffection to the Rulers is sedition. We were arrested because the report might be seen as causing disaffection to the Rulers. The office was not raided but inspected as the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission - the internet regulators - wanted copies of emails related to the publication of the report.

Have other Malaysian activists, scholars or other media outlets been treated the same way recently?

I am unsure if others have received the same treatment as us. Only one cartoonist has been arrested for sedition and now faces nine charges in court.

In your view, what message do the authorities want to send Malaysian media with these actions?

The authorities appear to want all media to toe the official line and not report all sides of any issue. Arresting journalists or even considering charges of sedition is among the harshest action they can take as laws that allow preventive detention have now been repealed and cannot be used as it was done previously.

How would you describe the current state of freedom of expression in Malaysia?

There is a fair amount of freedom of expression. The issue isn't so much what is said but who gets to say it. Pro-government and government supporters and officials seem to get away lightly while those seen as impartial or left of centre are cautioned, arrested and kept overnight in a lock-up.

The reasons are many and can be speculated but they want us to toe the official narrative and not contradict them.

Jahabar Sadiq is chief editor and chief executive of The Malaysian Insider news portal.