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Malaysia's 'independent voice' back online

By Dave Brewer in London

Malaysiakini editor-in-chief Steven Gan (C) during the candlelight vigil
Malaysiakini editor-in-chief Steven Gan (C) during the candlelight vigil

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- One of Malaysia's only independent news groups is back online after a 10-hour silence following a raid by government officials.

Journalists at Malaysiakini's Kuala Lumpur newsroom were unable to update their Web site during the raid, after officials confiscated essential computer equipment on Monday.

Last night more than 200 supporters staged a candlelight vigil outside the company offices to protest the police action.

The unannounced visit by authorities followed the publication of a letter in the site's public forum that questioned special rights accorded to ethnic Malays.

They said such comments could instill hatred towards the government among non-Malay Malaysians.

Officials said they were investigating a police report relating to a charge under Malaysia's Sedition Act.

The site's editor-in-chief, Steven Gan, refused to reveal the identity of the author and defended the publication of the letter as an issue of free speech.

Gan, released Tuesday after five hours of police questioning, said the move was aimed at crippling the organization.

In all 15 newsroom computers were removed as well as four servers worth around RM150,000 ($40,000).

According to Azimi Daim, the information chief of Umno Youth, the Malay partner of the ruling coalition, the letter at the center of the investigation falsely accused the government of ignoring the benefits of indigenous people, known as "orang asli," and claimed allowances and medical care are only given to those who become Muslims.

Open discussion

Computers, servers and the site's content management system were all removed
Computers, servers and the site's content management system were all removed

The site has been operating from offices in Kuala Lumpur for three years and has built a following of users at home and abroad willing to pay a subscription for its news service.

Gan said Malaysiakini's letters forum was set up to encourage free and open discussion on controversial issues.

"But that does not mean we publish letters without due care,' he said.

"We exercise a strict selective process in which letters that are considered personal attacks or those which could possibly breach existing laws are left out," he said.

"We believe that the said letter did not carry any seditious remarks that could incite racial violence, but was based on a factual comparative study."

Tuesday's police report is the third against Malaysiakini since its launch three years ago.

In March 2001, police in the Malaysian state of Selangor lodged a report against the Web site for quoting opposition comments questioning the official death toll from racial rioting in the city of Petaling Jaya.

In July of the same year, a university student leader filed a report claiming a letter published on Malaysiakini bearing his name was not written by him.

But this is the first time that the site has, effectively, been silenced.

Human rights commissioner Professor Hamdan Adnan described the raid as a measure to silence critical views and political dissent.

"State power should not be abused", he said, adding that he viewed the police action as a violation of press freedom.

Malaysia has ratified the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- in which Article 19 provides the right to freedom of speech.

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