KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — The head of a popular Malaysian independent online news portal was charged Friday for airing what prosecutors called "offensive" videos of a news conference by a former ruling party member, a move a rights group labeled an attack on press freedom.
Malaysiakini's editor-in-chief Steven Gan was charged under the Communications and Multimedia Act in a special cyber court for "uploading offensive videos with the intent of annoying others," his lawyer K.Shanmuga said.
The July 27 videos feature a news conference by Khairuddin Abu Hassan, a former ruling party official, calling on Attorney General Mohamad Apandi Ali to quit over his allegedly bias handling of investigations into indebted state investment fund 1MDB.
Gan said prosecutors didn't give any details in court on why the videos were offensive.
"We shall prove in court that covering the press conference is not a crime. We were merely doing our job as journalists," Gan said. If found guilty, he could be fined or jailed up to a year.
Khairuddin wasn't charged for his comments in the video. However, he was charged last year for economic sabotage after he filed complaints with authorities abroad about alleged wrongdoings in 1MDB.
Human Rights Watch slammed the charge against Gan as a serious violation of press freedom and said it showed the "increasingly dictatorial side" of Prime Minister Najib Razak and his government.
"By using rights abusing laws, ludicrous arguments and special cyber courts, Malaysia appears to be aiming at shutting down the vibrant and diverse online news environment that has grown up because of the government's control and censorship of the mainline print and TV media," the group's deputy Asia director Phil Roberson said in a statement.
Malaysiakini, the country's first online news portal launched in 1999, is known for its criticism of the government. Online media have since expanded and played a key role in helping the opposition make unprecedented gains in the last two general elections.
The government earlier pledged not to censor the internet, but Najib has kept an iron grip since allegations of massive fraud in the 1MDB fund erupted last year.
The 1MDB fund is at the center of investigations in the U.S. and several other countries amid allegations of a global embezzlement and money-laundering scheme. Najib started the fund shortly after taking office in 2009 to promote economic development projects, but the fund accumulated billions in debt over the years.
The U.S. Justice Department said at least $3.5 billion has been stolen from 1MDB by people close to Najib and initiated action in July to seize $1.3 billion it said was taken from the fund to buy assets in the U.S.
The U.S. government complaints also said that more than $700 million had landed in the accounts of "Malaysian Official 1." They did not name the official, but appear to be referring to Najib. The prime minister has denied any wrongdoing.