A Canadian journalist was sentenced today to six weeks in prison for contempt of court, a decision that lawyers and human rights groups said could have broad implications for freedom of speech in this Southeast Asian nation.

Murray Hiebert, Malaysia bureau chief for the Far Eastern Economic Review, a regional magazine published by Dow Jones & Co., was taken to prison two hours after losing an appeal against a contempt of court conviction for an article he wrote in 1997 that a judge said offended him.

The Appeals Court reduced his original three-month sentence to six weeks, but rejected his request to have his passport returned pending further appeal to the Federal Court.

After sentencing, Hiebert, 50, told his lawyers, "You tried your best." Then he called relatives in Canada and Washington from a cellular phone and was taken to Sungai Buloh prison--the same jail where former finance minister Anwar Ibrahim is serving a six-year sentence on corruption charges.

Hiebert's sentencing came amid a flurry of high-profile court cases in Malaysia, many of them involving journalists and opposition politicians. Human rights and opposition groups said the ruling undermines freedom of speech in a country where authorities keep a tight rein on the media.

Dow Jones said the company was "deeply disappointed" with Hiebert's sentence.

Hiebert was sentenced in 1997 for an article about a lawsuit brought by an appeals court judge's wife against the International School of Kuala Lumpur. The article mentioned that the woman's husband was a prominent judge and that the case had been speeded through the court system. A judge at the time decided that the article had "scandalized" the court and was "calculated to excite prejudice against the plaintiff."

CAPTION: Murray Hiebert was sentenced to a six-week prison term for an article he wrote in 1997.