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KL detains chiefs of The Edge, Malaysian Insider
IN one of the biggest crackdowns in Malaysia's recent history, five seasoned newsmen were the latest to be hauled up by cops under sedition charges, bringing the tally to over 100 politicians, activists, lawyers, journalists and academics detained in recent months.
The most recent arrests took place on Tuesday morning after The Edge's chief executive Ho Kay Tat and Jahabar Sadiq, chief executive of popular online news portal The Malaysian Insider (TMI), also owned by The Edge Media Group, arrived at a police station in Kuala Lumpur for questioning over a recent article on the controversial hudud issue.
Syahredzan Johan, lawyer for three other editors who were arrested earlier on Monday, took to Twitter to announce that the court rejected the police's remand application for the trio, who will be freed later in the day.
Mr Ho and Mr Jahabar were still being detained and according to Mr Syahredzan will spend the night in custody. They are being investigated under Section 4 (1) of the Sedition Act 1948 and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998.
The latest arrests are over an article uploaded on TMI that said the Conference of Rulers - Malaysia's monarchy - had, at a meeting on March 11, rejected a proposed amendment to the Islamic penal code to allow the use of hudud in the state of Kelantan.
The Keeper of the Rulers' Seal denied issuing any statement on hudud in Kelantan and lodged a police report to seek a police investigation into the matter.
"(There is) No tolerance towards any seditious activities," Malaysia's top cop Khalid Abu Bakar said via Twitter, confirming the latest arrests.
The crackdown, which some have described as excessive and "wholly disproportionate", has roiled many Malaysians, causing deep anxiety in the country as it is perceived as a bid to quell rising dissent over several issues not limited to hudud and also involving controversial state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd.
"This is a crackdown to stem criticism of major scandals. When the leadership is under siege, this normally spills out into society," said Universiti Malaya political economy professor Terence Gomez.
The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) called for the immediate release of the news executives, describing the arrests as an "assault on media freedom" and an "act of intimidation".
The Malaysian government has attempted to distance itself from these arrests with Malaysia's Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi reportedly saying that he is not involved directly in the "operational activities" of the police. "As minister, I do not get involved in directing the police on questions of jurisdiction of a particular department," according to a report by The Star.
To some, the arrests of recent months which also hauled in supporters of jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, are a disturbing reminder of the country's infamous Operation Lalang, a massive crackdown back in 1987 where over 100 people were arrested under the now-defunct Internal Security Act (ISA) for allegedly stirring racial tensions.
But not everyone agrees. "In terms of the gravity of the arrests, these recent developments can't be compared with Ops Lalang which allowed for detention without trial.
"Also, much has changed in terms of the Malaysian electorate and society in general and their expectations of the government now compared to then," said Malaysian political analyst Gavin Khoo, adding that nevertheless the current "mass arrests" would make it difficult for Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to defend his reform credentials.
The ISA, a colonial-era law that was heavily criticised as a tool to silence opponents, was repealed in 2011 as part of Mr Najib's liberal reforms. Now, the sweeping arrests since last August under the Sedition Act, which Mr Najib had earlier pledged to repeal but backtracked last year to protect national harmony and the sanctity of Islam and the position of Malaysia's traditional rulers - the Sultans - are drawing similar criticisms and prompting a rethink.
"It is very surprising how often it (the Sedition Act ), a hard-hitting law that is very broad, is being used.
" It shows some arrogance. That is what really needs to be looked at," says Dr Ooi Kee Beng, deputy director of the Institute of South-east Asian Studies.