By Erwin Oliva, INQUIRER.net, 22 Jan 2007

BLOGGERS from different parts of the world have rallied behind two Malaysian bloggers facing defamation suits.

Jeff Ooi and Ahirudin Attan were sued separately on January 4, 2007 by the New Straits Times Press (NTSP) and its top executives, Deputy Chairperson Kalimullah Hassan, Group Editor-in-Chief Hishamuddin Aun and former group editor Brenden Pereira.

A blog, dubbed Walk With Us, was set up recently to support freedom of expression in Malaysia and elsewhere.

“You are the Goliath when you have the luxury to sue bloggers using a corporate organization’s financial resources. We mustn’t allow the mainstream media to wax their financial muscles to muzzle the bloggers. We mustn’t let the newspaper use the Court to define the opinion space in the Internet Age. The power to define the opinion space should be the Internet-empowered populace. They deserve the right to information that defines the country,” the blog said in its “About Us” page.

Nuraina A. Samad, a former New Straits Times editor for 27 years, also wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and the entire Cabinet in her blog, in reaction to the defamation suits against the two bloggers.

She said that while the individual plaintiffs in the defamation suit had the right to sue the bloggers, involving the newspaper was a “big mistake.”

“I am sure you are aware of this. My concern is not the suit taken by the individuals but by the NST. I will not go into why the NST is suing these two bloggers although I am actually still trying to figure this one out. As far as the individuals (plaintiffs) are concerned, like any citizen of this country, they have the right to seek redress if they feel that their reputation has been hurt or injured by these two bloggers. But for the NST to decide to be dragged into this, I think it is a big mistake,” Samad added.

Last week, the Bangkok-based Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) issued a statement noting their “concern” over the landmark suit against Malaysian bloggers.

SEAPA executive director Roby Alampay said the group, which is also promoting freedom of expression, believes that the defamation suit goes beyond “the interests of private entities.”

“It will impact on Malaysians’ access to diverse and independent news, commentary, and information, and will also adversely affect the Internet as a medium for free expression in a country where much of the mainstream press is owned and influenced by political parties and government itself,” Alampay, said in a statement on January, 19, 2006.

Since 2003, Ooi has been critical of government and public figures on his Screenshots blog.

Ahirudin, on the other hand, was former executive editor of the Malay Mail, a newspaper under the NSTP. He started his own blog, dubbed Rocky’s Bru, after he left the newspaper group, which underwent a financial and structural restructuring in early 2006. He is currently the president of the National Press Club.

In Ooi’s previous posting, he disclosed that there has been an outpouring of support from people, including Blogger and Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Manuel Quezon III and CNET Asia blogger and INQUIRER.net editor Joey Alarilla who expressed their individual support.

“I am overwhelmed with phonecalls, SMS, e-mails to both my Gmail and Hushmail accounts, with offers of counsel, moral support, legal representation and even financial assistance. As a somewhat unknown blogger I am touched though I simply can’t find time to reply them all,” he said.

In a recent posting, Ahirudin disclosed that there were also offers for financial help. But he announced that both him and Ooi plan to use the money to create a fund to help other bloggers fighting for freedom of expression and their rights in the court of law.

“Many of you asked me for my bank account no. because you wanted to send money to help finance the fight. We have decided that it will serve bloggers well if we set up a fund not in our names but in the name of blogger solidarity and freedom of expression to defend our rights in the court of law. We should be announcing the formation of the fund this week,” he said.

“Bloggers Unite should also meet up soon to discuss the future of blogging, the new threat that we face, the steps that we will need to take. It’s going to be a long journey but we’ll walk the distance. Walk with us,” he added.

A court injunction was served on January 11, 2006, requiring Ooi to remove 13 alleged defamatory postings. He was also barred from publishing anything more about the plaintiffs. The hearing on the case against Ooi is scheduled on January 30, 2006.

Meanwhile, the court injunction against Ahirudin ordered him to remove at least 48 alleged defamatory postings. A hearing is scheduled on January 25, 2006.

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