Malaysian authorities agreed Thursday to let an Islamic opposition party continue publishing its newspaper, but kept two other anti-government publications in suspense about whether they might be banned.
The newspapers of all three parties in opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s alliance have faced an uncertain future because the Home Ministry refused to immediately renew their expired publication licenses in recent weeks. All Malaysian publications require government-issued permits that must be extended annually.
Officials say the newspapers have flouted publication rules and, in at least one case, published false information. But opposition leaders accuse the ruling coalition of trying to block them from swaying public opinion against the government.
The Home Ministry said Thursday it was renewing the license of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party’s newspaper after party officials pledged to obey government guidelines, such as printing a front—page notice on the newspaper that it is for party members only.
The ministry stressed in a statement it has issued “a strong warning” that the newspaper can only be sold at the party’s offices, not at newsstands. The party publishes about 120,000 copies twice a week.
The statement did not mention two other opposition papers without fresh permits. One has been rebuked by the government over a recent article that claimed the state—run land development agency was facing bankruptcy.
Government leaders warned the article could spark widespread distress and threatened to sue for libel. Opposition officials insist the article was fair comment.
Tian Chua, a senior official in Anwar’s alliance, said opposition leaders hope to meet with Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein this week to resolve the dispute over the permits.
“We just want to show that we are willing to discuss and don’t want to give them any excuse to say that we are provocative,” Chua said, adding that the two papers would not be published for at least a week.
Home Ministry officials could not immediately be reached Thursday. Mr. Hishammuddin recently said the government was merely enforcing the law and not trying to clamp down on the opposition.
The newspapers consider themselves a counterpoint to mainstream newspapers, which are often perceived as pro—government because they are owned or closely linked to parties in Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ruling coalition.
Activists say the government’s measures could indicate insecurity ahead of general elections that must be held by 2013. The opposition made strong inroads in 2008 elections amid public anger over corruption and racial and religious disputes.
“The Malaysian government’s attempt to muzzle the main opposition party’s newspaper is a double assault on political freedom and free speech,” said Lance Lattig, human rights group Amnesty International’s researcher for Malaysia.