Malaysian authorities should drop the charges against Malaysiakini editor-in-chief Steven Gan and stop using legal threats to intimidate the independent news outlet, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On July 2, a seven-member federal court panel agreed to hear contempt of court proceedings against Gan and his news website over five comments posted by readers that were allegedly critical of Malaysia’s judiciary, according to news reports. As charged under Section 114A of the Evidence Act, Gan and Malaysiakini are deemed to have published the comments, because they appeared on the outlet’s website, according to those reports.

The panel accepted Attorney General Idrus Harun’s bid to initiate court proceedings against Gan, ruled against Gan’s application for dismissal, and set a trial date to begin on July 13, according to Malaysiakini If convicted, Gan could face jail time and fines, both set at the court’s discretion, according to those news reports.

“Malaysian prosecutors should drop the bogus contempt of court charges pending against Steven Gan and stop using legal threats to intimidate the media,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “Pursuing an independent news outlet over comments from random internet users reeks of a witch hunt and sends a worrying signal about the state of press freedom under Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s new government.”

The reader comments in question were made on a June 9 articleExternal link about the country’s courts reopening after the COVID-19 lockdown, and were on the website for two days before Malaysiakini administrators took them down after being contacted by police, those news reports said.

The court banned Gan and Malaysiakini from making any comments on the case while proceedings are ongoing, according to those reports.

CPJ emailed the attorney general’s office for comment, but did not immediately receive any reply.

On April 2, CPJ sent a letter to Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, urging him to promote and protect press freedom and not revert to the media harassment seen under previous United Malays National Organization-affiliated governments.Gan  received the CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in 2000 for his courage in reporting in the face of government harassment. CPJ has documented persistent government harassment of Malaysiakini since the outlet’s founding in 1999.