A news website that reported on the Malaysian prime minister’s alleged corruption is shutting down

He is watching.
He is watching.
Image: Reuters/Olivia Harris
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The Malaysian Insider (TMI), a popular news site blocked by Malaysian authorities last month, announced today (March 14) that it’s shutting down “for commercial reasons.”

On Feb. 25 the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission issued a statement (link in Malay) explaining why TMI had been blocked in Malaysia. TMI, it said, had breached laws under the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, which prohibits using a website to publish ”any comment, request, suggestion or other communication which is obscene, indecent, false, menacing or offensive in character with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass another person.”

TMI published a number of articles about 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state investment fund, and the investigations into more than $680 million (possibly more than $1 billion) deposited into the personal accounts of prime minister Najib Razak—much of which has been linked back to 1MDB (paywall).

After being blocked in Malaysia, TMI created a mirror site called the Malaysian Outsider. The US state department said it was “very concerned” about a media crackdown in Malaysia that has coincided with reporting about Najib and alleged corruption.

Malaysia’s communications commission warned other online news outlets against making the same mistake as TMI, reminding “news portals not to spread or publish articles where the facts have not been proven.”

The subject of 1MDB has been a touchy one for Malaysian authorities. Two Australian TV journalists were detained this weekend after approaching Najib in the city of Kuching to question him about related graft allegations.

For TMI’s publisher, the Edge Media Group, running afoul of the authorities is a familiar experience. Two of its print titles—the Edge Malaysia and the Edge Financial Daily—were shut down for a few months last summer, also after reporting on 1MDB (paywall).

The Edge Media Group, privately owned by Malaysian media tycoon Tong Kooi Ong, acquired TMI in September 2014. At the time of the purchase, TMI had the second-highest traffic among Malaysia’s pure online news portals. The publisher described TMI as “a news website that has garnered a strong and eclectic readership with its unvarnished take on the issues of the day, politics, business, lifestyle, sports, and entertainment.”

The publisher, Ho Kay Tat, issued a statement today explaining the financial difficulties that led to the shut-down. He said his company had incurred losses of about 10 million ringgit ($2.4 million) since the acquisition of the site and that, “We are no longer in a position to keep it going.” The company’s financial difficulties were apparent earlier. An internal memo from late January revealed it had been looking to downsize—one factor being significant losses it incurred during the shut-down of the two print publications.

Ho mentioned interest from potential buyers. But, he said, “We believe the recent problems TMI had with the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission had made it more difficult for a sale to be concluded even though discussions had started before that.”

Opposition lawmaker Lim Kit Siang blamed the government for the site’s closure:

About 60 TMI employees are losing their jobs. The editor of TMI, Jahabar Sadiq, wrote a final note on the website, saying:

We worked as impartial journalists to inform Malaysians and other readers so that they make informed decisions… I won’t put down my pen, I won’t lay down my camera, I won’t shut up and I won’t be blinkered or turn a deaf ear to what goes on in Malaysia and the world. And I urge all of you to do the same.