A group of 35 civil society organisations and 17 individuals have expressed horror and concern that police are investigating Al Jazeera on its reporting, instead of the government providing an explanation to the public or probing potential mismanagement of power or accountability.
“We are alarmed by actions taken by the government following the release of a documentary on July 3 by Al Jazeera that reported on Malaysia’s treatment of undocumented migrants during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Ministers, heads of government agencies and the police have come out strongly against Locked Up In Malaysia’s Lockdown, with investigations being opened under Section 4(1) of the Sedition Act, Section 500 of the Penal Code and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act.
“Besides that, the Immigration Department has since threatened to revoke the passes of foreign nationals who make ‘inaccurate statements aimed at damaging Malaysia’s image’”, said the group in a joint statement this morning.
Released by the Centre for Independent Journalism, among the signatories of the statement are Aliran, Amnesty International Malaysia, Bersih, Sisters In Islam, Tenaganita as well as a host of other human rights groups. Among the 17 individuals were the Bar Council’s Andrew Khoo and PSM deputy chairperson S Arutchelvan.
“A credible action by the government when such news is released is to hold a press conference and provide a legitimate and reasonable counter or explanation in order to avoid being seen as benefiting from the whole government machinery for political ends,” they added.
The activists said they are seeing a spike in hate speech and threats of violence and harassment against foreign workers, exacerbated further after one interviewee in the Al Jazeera documentary was outed on social media for comments he made in it.
“His personal information, such as his purported phone number and Facebook account, has gone viral, with a litany of hate comments and derogatory language directed at him.
The group blasted the Immigration Department for releasing the individual’s name, passport number and last known address, saying it had made matters worse.
In addition to that, refugee rights activist Heidy Quah was also being investigated by Bukit Aman over a Facebook post exposing the alleged mistreatment of refugees at immigration detention centres.
“We fear that this could turn into a witch hunt and place not just this individual but other migrant workers in fear of their security and possible harm.
“The government should not be complicit in human rights abuses against migrant workers, such as doxxing and threats, by promoting hatred or discrimination in their messaging,” the group said.
“We worry that statements by officials in recent days could further heighten tensions and incite violence and discrimination against migrants, specifically undocumented workers in the country, besides completely undermining the need for critical media reporting and exercise of freedom of expression.”
They added that they stand in solidarity with Al Jazeera and strongly condemn efforts by the state to intimidate and threaten media freedom and independence in the country.
These instances, they said, have been systematic and heightened since the change of government this year and included investigations and charges using various laws which were levied against journalist Tashny Sukumaran, former radio deejay Patrick Teoh and CodeBlue editor-in-chief Boo Su-Lyn, among others.
“We remind the state and its leaders that media freedom and freedom of expression and speech underpins the fundamental right to seek and exchange ideas, opinions and information that would enable the public to form their own opinions and allow for dissenting or alternative positions, specifically on issues of public interest.
“This would, ultimately, aid in the promotion of good governance and in holding the state and its officials to higher account, which is no doubt what is expected of a democratic state.”
They called on the Perikatan Nasional government to end and refrain from the continued use of intimidating measures to threaten and punish the media and silence critical voices.
The group urged the government to:
- Drop all investigations against Al Jazeera and their sources or interviewees.
- Initiate an independent inquiry into possible mismanagement or abuse of power by state apparatus and officials in the handling of the raids targeted at migrant workers.
- Stop all forms of intimidation and threats against foreigners, specifically migrant workers, from exercising their rights and voicing out their opinions.
- Prevent incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence against migrant workers and other foreigners through government rhetorics or messaging.
- Ensure doxxing, threats and other human rights abuses, both online and offline, against migrants including undocumented migrant workers, are investigated and perpetrators are held accountable.
- Move ahead with the establishment of the Malaysian Media Council as a transparent and independent self-regulatory body for the industry, and to avoid the government from becoming the sole arbiter of truth and deciding what information is true and what is not.
In a separate statement, Lawyers For Liberty (LFL) coordinator Zaid Malek hit out at the reaction to the documentary.
“We have carefully considered the entirety of the documentary, and state that there is nothing there that warrants any criminal investigation by the authorities.
“If there truly was anything that was misreported, the government could simply release their own statements to refute any inaccuracies.
“Instead, the authorities appear to be determined to stifle any criticism regarding the mass crackdown on migrants during the movement control order (MCO),” he said.
LFL cited the now classified “No Further Action” police investigation on Tashny who was probed under Section 504 of the Penal Code and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act for her tweets on the immigration raid at Selangor Mansion, Kuala Lumpur.
“This sort of heavy-handed responses to criticism serves to threaten journalistic freedom,” Zaid added.
He took the Immigration Department to task over its circulation of the notice concerning the Bangladeshi man interviewed in the documentary.
“We are appalled that the authorities chose to single out this individual, an action which would have the unfortunate result of further stoking the disproportionate outrage this man is currently facing.”
He said the notice which contained the interviewee’s details “can be construed as a state-sanctioned witch hunt which could bring untold harm to this individual.”
LFL said it must be noted that concerns for the condition of those in detention centres are not without reason as an Indian tourist, Zeawdeen Kadar Masdan, was reported to have died on June 12 after contracting Covid-19 while under immigration detention.