A Malaysian court ruled this week that publishing a newspaper is a fundamental right.
The ruling offers hope for greater journalistic independence in a country where most major newspapers are owned by or affiliated to the government.
The court case was between the Malaysian government and Malaysiakini, an independent news website that attracts 400,000 daily readers.
Malaysiakini, which is seeking to expand its audience through a print newspaper, launched the legal proceedings two years ago when the government denied its application for a publishing permit, without which no newspaper may be printed in Malaysia.
The Kuala Lumpur High Court ruled on Monday that the government should not have rejected the application, and would have to re-evaluate.
The decision will make it harder for the government to block an application for a printing permit, said Shanmuga Kanesalingam, a lawyer who represented Malaysiakini, according to The New York Times, because under the new ruling, officials will have to demonstrate that the planned publication would be immoral, or would pose a threat to public order, national security, or national sovereignty.
“The court has recognised that the granting of a permit is a right, not a privilege as the government has said," another Malaysiakini lawyer, Edmund Bon, told AFP. “It will open the floodgates.”
Masjaliza Hamzah, Executive Officer of the Center for Independent Journalism in Kuala Lumpur, told The Times that the decision was “very significant,” because few new permits had been granted of late, and those that had were not on a large enough scale to reach a country-wide audience.
Malaysiakini, which has sections in English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil and garners an audience of around 2.5 million a month, is different.
The government has a month to file an appeal. While it has not yet said whether it intends to do so, Premesh Chandran, the Co-Founder and CEO of Malaysiakini expects that it will likely do so, according to The Times.
Nevertheless, AFP reports that Chandran is “happy” with the ruling. "The court recognised publishing a paper is part of freedom of expression, which is a right under the constitution. This is a fundamental shift of the interpretation of freedom of speech in the country," he told the news agency.
Legal constraints on press freedom are, however, ever present in Malaysia. Under the Sedition Act, sentences of up to five years in jail can serve as punishment for "criticising the government" or "questioning the established order," according to Reporters Without Borders, and the government still has the power to withdraw publishing permits.
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