KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysian leader Najib Razak is suing an independent online news portal for allegedly defaming him and his ruling Malay party.
The action against Malaysiakini is believed to be the first by a Malaysian prime minister against a media organization. Rights activists called it a threat to press freedom.
The news portal said on its website that it received legal papers on Tuesday accusing it of publishing readers’ comments that defamed Najib and damaged his image. The comments were critical of Najib and questioned alleged corruption in his party.
Malaysiakini editor Steven Gan said Najib was offered a chance to reply but refused.
“We will fight the suit vigorously,” Gan said.
Najib lodged the suit after Malaysiakini, known for its criticism of the government, refused to apologize and retract the comments.
Last week, Najib said his action against the news portal was not part of a media crackdown to silence critics, and stressed “there is a difference between legitimate criticism and defamation.” A court hearing has been set for June 18.
Malaysiakini, the country’s first online news portal, was formed in 1999 to offer “alternative news and views of Malaysia” in response to government control of the mass media.
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.
Media rights group Reporters Without Borders earlier criticized Najib’s planned legal action, saying it was a threat to press freedom, and urged him to accept criticism.
Human Rights Watch also slammed Najib’s “heavy-handed efforts,” saying they showed “a fundamental disregard for press freedom.”