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Media on trial in Malaysia over mig
- Subject: Media on trial in Malaysia over mig
- From: suriya@xxxxxxxxxxxx
- Date: Mon, 28 Jun 1999 04:18:00
Subject: Media on trial in Malaysia over migrant expose
Editorial & Opinion
Media on trial in Malaysia over migrant expose
The last time when investigative journalism was practised, it turned into the
longest court case in Malaysian history, writes Ken Stier.
In Malaysia, nominal press freedom supports newsstands full of publications,
including at least a dozen national dailies, but nothing appears in print here
that could rightly be called investigative journalism. The last time such
reporting was tried, the effort landed people in court -- and they are still
there, four years later.
After more than 170 hearing days ''Public Prosecutor vs Irene VM
the longest court case in Malaysian history. It is already almost twice as
as the more celebrated case against former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim
-- which lasted 78 days, ending in his conviction and a six-year sentence --
and this trial could easily putter on into the new millennium.
Though it has attracted much less attention than Anwar's case, many consider
the trial another critical test of fundamental issues bedeviling Malaysia --
press freedom, judiciary independence and the ability of NGOs to operate as an
integral part of civil society.
''Irene's case is very significant and if she is convicted it will be a
tremendous blow to activists and even academics and journalists who want to
write and publish things they have researched that they feel the public has a
right to know,'' says Elizabeth Wong of Suaram, a human rights organisation.
''It has already had a chilling impact, making people much more careful.''
''This is not about justice, this is punishment for speaking out against the
government,'' says Steven Gan, a Malaysian journalist whose expose about
horrific conditions in migrant worker detention camps triggered the case. Gan,
36, now an editorial writer for The Nation newspaper in Bangkok, spent his
eighth day on the stand last Friday testifying in a downtown courtroom.
In 1995, as special-issues editor of The Sun newspaper, Gan led a team of
reporters investigating barbaric conditions in the camps where dozens of
migrants -- mostly Bangladeshis and Indonesians -- died of neglect and
reportedly from torture as well.
Three weeks in the making, the story was pulled two hours before printing. In
frustration, Gan gave the report to a non-governmental organisation working
with migrants, Irene Fernandez's Tenaganita (Women's Spirit), which spelled
the explosive charges in a press conference.
The government's first reaction was denial but weeks later home ministry
officials were compelled to admit that 46 migrant workers had indeed died
in state custody. Police launched their own internal, and still secret,
but seemed decidedly more zealous about going after the whistle-blowers.
Gan was interrogated for two full days but it was Fernandez who was eventually
arrested and charged with ''maliciously publishing false news'' -- a crime
punishable by three years in jail and a fine.
''With this government I expect to get a conviction -- otherwise I would not
have been charged,'' says Fernandez, 52, whose family is originally from
''It was not just the AG (attorney general) bringing charges against me, it
the Cabinet who voted to prosecute me, so for me it is political,'' she adds.
''Only Anwar voted against it.''
Why the harsh reaction?
''We are a developing country, a modernising country, the leader of the Third
World, how could we have migrant workers dying in camps?'' said Selvi Gopal,
another reporter who worked on the expose.
A sensitive national image is even more delicate because Malaysia is hugely
dependent on overseas workers -- at one time employing as many as three
-- for everything from building new highways to tapping rubber trees. Another
reason for the official retaliation was that this was the time the police --
one of the country's most powerful institutions -- was publicly criticised for
''People are now more aware of police abuse but this was before the time of
Anwar (whom Malaysia's police chief admitted beating up while he was
and in a jail cell),'' says Gan.
''Malaysia appears democratic but when you hit the heart of the issue -- like
government corruption and police abuse -- that's when they start coming down
hard on you,'' explains Gan, who concedes the episode was a factor in his
leaving his home country.
Despite the shocking revelations not a single officer is known to have been
disciplined. -- Deutsche