Two Malaysian opposition newspapers that have been banned for three months were punished for inciting hatred against the government, the home minister said, according to reports Tuesday.

The opposition has said it fears a media crackdown is under way, after action was taken against Suara Keadilan, run by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s Keadilan party, and Harakah, published by the Islamic party PAS.

The papers have vowed to defy the ban and continue publishing during a period of intense political activity, with a leadership transition, a ruling party conference, and three by-elections all to take place in the next few weeks.

Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar said the newspapers had threatened the stability of the multi-racial nation, particularly with their reporting on a struggle for control of a northern state, which erupted in January.

“We found that facts were distorted and fabricated with the aim to create misunderstanding and instill hatred for the government and leaders,” he said, according to the New Straits Times.

“We want to send them a clear message,” he said. “You can promote your political ideology but do not create dissension that could disrupt peace and stability.”

Malaysia’s mainstream media are largely government-linked, and the opposition relies on its own press, as well as Internet news sites and blogs, to convey its message to the public.

Reporters Without Borders ranks the country 132 out of 173 on its worldwide press freedom index, and says the mainstream media are “often compelled to ignore or to play down the many events organised by the opposition.”

The ruling party, UMNO, has been in disarray since elections a year ago that saw an unprecedented loss of ground to the opposition. Its general assembly, which begins Tuesday, is expected to establish a recovery plan.

Political commentators are watching closely to see which direction will be taken under new leader Najib Razak, who is to replace Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi after the five-day party conference.

“We fear that this action by the government is a prelude to a general clampdown on press freedom in Malaysia,” Keadilan spokesman Tian Chua said Monday. — AFP