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Eyes on press freedom after Malaysia court ruling

KUALA LUMPUR -- A landmark Malaysian court ruling that upheld an independent news portal's right to publish a newspaper has placed a spotlight on Prime Minister Najib Razak's pledge to loosen controls on the press.

The Kuala Lumpur High Court on October 1 ruled in favor of Malaysiakini.com's challenge against a refusal to issue a publishing license to the site, which is known for content often highly critical of the government.

Najib, who must call elections by mid-2013, has positioned himself as a reformer in a bid to recapture the support of voters who in 2008 handed his ruling Barisan Nasional coalition its worst polls showing ever.

In April, he lifted a rule that forced publications to renew their printing permits annually — which gave the government leverage to ensure compliant coverage — but the home ministry still has the power to deny or revoke licenses.

For this, and other reasons, Malaysia's opposition has dismissed the reform pledges as window-dressing for the election, and the court ruling could now put pressure on Najib to prove them wrong.

The ruling has “opened the floodgates” for newspaper license applications, said National Union of Journalists general secretary V. Anbalagan, adding that trying to control the media was “futile” in the Internet age.

“If they are refused permits, they can go to court and create a public issue over freedom of speech. The old business model won't work for the ruling party anymore,” he told AFP.

Opening up the right to newspaper publishing is likely to have major political implications in the multi-ethnic country, Southeast Asia's third-largest economy.

The ruling coalition — dominated by Najib's Muslim, ethnic Malay party — has wielded press control as a major weapon to help remain in power since 1957, forcing the opposition to turn to the Internet to get its message out.

The Barisan Nasional coalition had a virtual monopoly of the press until Internet penetration surged in the past decade.

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