By Rozanna Latiff
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia's highest court on Friday found news portal Malaysiakini in contempt over comments about the judiciary posted by readers, a ruling condemned by rights groups as a clampdown on free speech.
The Federal Court found Malaysiakini was fully responsible for publishing readers' comments that were critical of the judiciary and fined the news portal 500,000 ringgit ($123,762).
The landmark ruling comes on the heels of increasing concerns from rights groups over a crackdown on dissent under Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
It could also influence how news sites and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter manage user comments in a country where traditional media is largely pro-establishment or linked to the state.
The ruling came after Malaysia's attorney-general last year sought to cite Malaysiakini and its editor-in-chief Steven Gan for contempt over five comments posted by readers on its website that it said undermined public confidence in the judiciary.
"The impugned statements had gone far and wide... the content was spurious and reprehensible in nature and the content involved allegations of corruption which were unproven and untrue," said judge Rohana Yusuf.
Malaysiakini and Gan had maintained that they could not be held responsible and that the offending comments had been immediately removed after they were contacted by police.
The fine was more than double the 200,000 ringgit prosecutors had sought, though the court cleared Gan of any offence.
As one of the few independent news outlets in the country, Malaysiakini has often attracted scrutiny from authorities. It has long provided a platform for the opposition and been critical of the establishment.
Gan said last month that in the two decades since he founded Malaysiakini, its journalists had been declared traitors, faced debilitating cyber-attacks, been kicked out of press conferences, arrested, and raided by the police.
After the hearing, Gan expressed disappointment with the court's decision, which he said put a burden on news and technology companies to control comments posted by external parties.
"It will have a chilling effect on discussion of public issues in the country and delivers a body blow on our campaign to fight corruption in the country," Gan told a news conference.
Rights groups, the United States and other foreign missions in Malaysia said the decision raised concerns about a free press and public discourse.
"The use of contempt of court laws to censor online debate and silence independent media is yet another example of the shrinking space for people to express themselves freely in the country," Amnesty International's Malaysia chapter said in a statement.
Authorities questioned Al Jazeera journalists last year and raided the broadcaster's office amid a probe into a programme they aired on the treatment of foreign workers. A foreign worker who spoke critically of Malaysia in the programme was deported.
The government had denied that it was clamping down on media freedom.
The ruling may also have broader implications for how social media companies like Facebook and Twitter manage their sites, especially as the case involved comments by third parties, said Malaysiakini's lawyer, Malik Imtiaz Sarwar.
"I would think it is safe to say that you could similarly take issue with postings or comments on Facebook or Twitter. But it's still premature and I think we should wait for the judgments," Malik said.
Facebook and Twitter declined to comment.
Malaysiakini launched a fundraiser, seeking public support for the penalty imposed by the court. It raised more than 500,000 ringgit in four hours.
($1 = 4.0400 ringgit)
(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Writing by Joseph Sipalan; Editing by Ed Davies, Gerry Doyle & Simon Cameron-Moore)