Outrage grows as Malaysian journalists are arrested over article about Islamic law

Outrage is growing in Malaysia over the continued wave of arrests, which has now extended to the media. Three editors from The Malaysian Insider (TMI) news portal were arrested yesterday, and executives from the Insider and The Edge media group were taken into detention today.

Managing editor Lionel Morais, news editor Amin Shah Iskandar, features and analysis editor Zulkifli Sulong, Insider chief executive and editor Jahabar Sadiq, and The Edge publisher Ho Kay Tat, were all arrested under Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act and Section 4 of the Sedition Act, lawyer Syahredzan Johan said. (TMI is one of the companies in the Edge group.)

(3.15pm 31 Mac 15) TMI 3, Amin Iskandar, Lionel Morais & Zulkifli Sulong di Dang Wangi.jpg largeLionel Morais, Amin Shah Iskandar, and Zulkifli Sulong in detention.

Morais, Amin, and Zulkifli were arrested yesterday during a raid on the Insider office. Jahabar and Ho were detained when they went to the Dang Wangi police station in Kuala Lumpur to give their statements.

Ho and Jahabar are being held overnight at the Dang Wangi police station pending a remand hearing tomorrow morning. The magistrate denied remand for the other three detainees, who were greeted with cheers and applause when they were released this evening. “As journalists we stand united,” Lionel Morais said on his release.vigil CBbZQlHUsAEx6Qn

Vigil outside the Dang Wangi police station tonight.

Previously, most of those arrested have been involved in the Kita Lawan (“We fight”) rallies that have been held every Saturday afternoon since the opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was sent to jail for five years on February 10 after being found guilty of sodomy.

There have been several arrests under the Sedition Act, but mostly over condemnation of Anwar’s jailing. Now, however, commenting about hudud (Islamic law) has become a reason for arrest and detention.

The five arrests are said to be over a report published by The Malaysian Insider on March 25, which said Malaysia’s Conference of Rulers had rejected proposed amendments to a federal law that the Kelantan government wants to change so that it can enforce  hudud (Islamic law) in the state. The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) Youth also made a complaint to the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC).

The officer of the Keeper of the Rulers’ Seal lodged a police report on March 26, denying that the Conference of Rulers had discussed the matter and adding that it had never issued any statement on hudud in Kelantan.

Lawyers for Liberty said the authorities’ excessive reaction clearly showed the “scant respect” they had for democratic rights, press freedom, and the rule of law. “Seen in light of more than a hundred arrests in recent months against elected representatives, politicians, activists, lawyers, and now members of the press, Malaysia is clearly sliding into a totalitarian state reminiscent of the darkest days of Operation Lalang.”

Operation Lalang (the Weeding Operation), also referred to as Ops Lalang, was a major crackdown launched in October 1987.

“It is not in dispute that TMI published the article in question and any investigation, if needed at all, could have been done in a more professional and less high-handed manner,” Lawyers for Liberty said. “This raid and arrest over a single article is certainly shocking and appalling to say the least, and constitutes a most serious assault on democracy, press freedom, and in particular the independent online press which has, since its inception, broken the authorities’ stranglehold over the media and information.”

The Malaysian Institute of Journalists (IoJ) said it was greatly disturbed by the five arrests. “If the report was inaccurate, the convention would be for the Conference of Rulers to issue a statement correcting it and for TMI to make an apology or to retract the article,” the IoJ said in a statement. “We reiterate our call for the Sedition Act to be repealed and we urge the authorities to refrain from taking unnecessarily heavy-handed action against the press,” it added.

Amnesty International Malaysia condemned “these latest attacks on dissent” by the Malaysian government and called on the government “to stop attacking freedoms pertinent to democracy”, including freedom of thought, opinion, and assembly.

The news portal Malaysiakini also condemned the arrests “in the strongest possible terms”. It said they were “a blatant assault on media freedom” and rendered hollow “the transformation pledges by Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak”.

The Malaysiakini office has been raided by the police and the MCMC many times and, last year, one of the portal’s journalists was arrested under the Sedition Act. “An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us,” Malaysiakini said. “This is the time for journalists to join hands and send a clear message to those in power that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword.”

The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) called for the immediate release of the five detainees and said the arrests were an “assault on media freedom” and “an act of intimidation in using police powers of arrests and detention”.

The organisations said that, if the police intended to investigate TMI for an article on the Conference of Rulers that had been disputed, they could have interviewed the people involved without a need to detain them, keep them overnight, and apply for a remand order. “If the article was found to be erroneous, it could have been retracted or corrected. If it had been found to be true, then the investigation would have no basis. The reaction of the police has been wholly disproportionate to the stated reason for the arrest of TMI’s editors and Ho.”

The National Union of Journalists in peninsular Malaysia added its voice to the condemnations,

The co-president of the Centre For A Better Tomorrow (CENBET), Gan Ping Sieu, called on Malaysia’s Inspector-General of Police (IGP), Khalid Abu Bakar, “to exercise restraint and common sense when enforcing the law, or risk deepening a political divide among the people already riven by racial and religious differences”. Of late, Gan Ping Sieu said, the police had been “uncharacteristically aggressive, especially against those critical of the government”.

The MP for Batu Chua Tian Chang – better known as Tian Chua – tweeted: “Pakatan MPs condemn the arrest of editors of TMI/TheEdge: it’s an assault on the press, intended to intimidate all journalists.”

Pakatan Rakyat (the People’s Pact) is the opposition coalition, comprising the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (the PKR or People’s Justice Party), the Democratic Action Party (DAP), and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).

Government politicians defend detentions

Politicians from the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition defended the arrests. Malaysia’s Minister of Tourism and Culture, Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz, said it was right to use the Sedition Act because the article in question involved the Malay Rulers, who were, he said, a symbol of unity for the nation. He said the Rulers council had not met to discuss hudud, so what was written, he said, “is a lie”. He added: “The expectation is that, whatever is written, when it’s not opinion, must be facts.”

UMNO chief for Cheras, Syed Ali Alhabshee, alleged on his blog that TMI had deliberately dragged the Conference of Rulers into the controversy surrounding PAS’s intention to enforce hudud in Kelantan.

“The TMI news portal published an inaccurate report that undermined the position of the Malay Rulers,” he said. It was, he said, intentional defamation that could not be forgiven and those arrested should “bear the consequences” of their actions.

“Ops Lalang II ongoing”

P1110186 (640x480)The most recent arrests follow a continuous series of detentions. One of those arrested under the Sedition Act was Anwar’s eldest daughter, Nurul Izzah (pictured left), who was detained overnight. She was arrested over a speech she gave in parliament on her father’s behalf.

There have already been two arrests this month over hudud. Two lawyers were detained under the Sedition Act: the executive director of Lawyers for Liberty, Eric Paulsen, for his comments about hudud, and the legal and campaign coordinator at Lawyers for Liberty, Michelle Yesudas, who expressed her fears about rape in Malaysia on Twitter after a presenter of a satirical video about hudud was threatened with rape and death.

A total 158 people have been arrested over the past two months. That is more than during Operation Lalang (106 were arrested).  The new wave of arrests is already being referred to as Ops Lalang II. “Ops Lalang II ongoing,” tweeted Eric Paulsen. “Politicians, activists, lawyers, media – all targetted.”

Many of those arrested have been detained overnight, and some for three days.

dragnet infographic 11102759_10152900901289633_513887820342724448_n

The February 5 arrest of Eric Paulsen came before Anwar’s jailing, so the total arrested since Feb 10 is 157 people.

Gan Ping Sieu from the CENBET said in his statement today that, in addition to the arrest of journalists, some of the more questionable police actions so far included arresting politicians in the dead of the night although they had said that they would voluntarily show up at the police station; the prolonged detention of an MP over two police probes; the IPG’s Twitter policing; and the raid on a political party headquarters.

Anti-terrorism Bill

The concern of lawyers and opposition leaders increased yesterday when the Prevention of Terrorism Bill 2015 was tabled in parliament.

The Malaysian government said late last year that new measures were needed to combat Islamic State (IS) activity in the country.

The Prevention of Terrorism Bill would allow authorities to detain suspects indefinitely without trial and lawyers would not be able to challenge the decision in court. Police would be able to detain suspected terrorists for a maximum of 38 days, then a Prevention of Terrorism Board would be able to make a detention order of up to two years, renewable indefinitely.

Lawyers for Liberty issued a statement saying that it viewed the Bill “with extreme concern”. The proposed legislation provided for “wide and arbitrary powers of arrest and detention by the police and detention without trial by the Prevention of Terrorism Board”, it stated.

“While not doubting the serious extremist and militant threats in Malaysia, we urge the government to recognise the serious impact such laws like the Emergency Ordinance and the Internal Security Act (ISA) have had on the fundamental rights of a person to a fair trial and due process.”

The ISA was a preventive detention law enacted after Malaysia gained independence from Britain in 1957. It allowed for detention without trial or criminal charges.

“It is essential that every imprisonment or detention of a person be done in accordance with internationally accepted standards – through a lawful process of investigation, a charge, a fair trial, and a conviction before a court of law,” Lawyers for Liberty said.

“While the safety and security of Malaysia must be a paramount concern, the answer will not be found in the reintroduction of oppressive and out-dated preventive laws like the ISA that provide for wide and arbitrary powers to detain suspects for up to two years, renewable indefinitely, and without recourse to due process and a fair trial.”

The deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, used extremely strong words in his reaction to the tabling of the Bill: “Any return to indefinite detention without trial is huge step backwards for human rights in Malaysia, whether in the guise of combating ‘terrorism’ or for any other reason.

“Human Rights Watch strongly opposes this move which sadly demonstrates just how far and fast Malaysia is sliding backwards in terms of respect for basic liberties.  Governments around the world should be alarmed and take action now to stop Malaysia’s government criminalising peaceful expression and protests.

“If the last year of human rights in Malaysia was a movie, it might star Prime Minister Najib as Jekyll and Hyde – where in New York and London, he appears as the proverbial Dr Jekyll promoting himself as moderate on the international stage, but upon returning home, he reverts to a rights abusing Mr Hyde in confronting peaceful critics demanding respect for the right to free expression and public assembly.”

The CIJ said: “Too many fundamental freedoms are at risk with this new law. The initial 38-day detention period is open to abuse.”

It called for the withdrawal of the Bill, and added: “Although the detention order is finally made by a board, instead of solely by the Home Minister, the board’s appointment does not appear to be through a transparent and open process, and the board’s decisions cannot be reviewed by a court, except on procedural grounds. This makes the process arbitrary and without any checks and balances.”

It said the fact that a government-appointed body could make orders for an individual to be detained indefinitely without trial was “deeply disturbing” and went against fundamental principles of human rights.

Syahredzan Johan tweeted, with irony: “Welcome back, Internal Security Act. The circle is well and truly complete.” He added: “Ousting jurisdiction of the Courts via ouster clause takes away a very important safeguard.”

The Prevention of Terrorism Bill includes a provision that no person shall be arrested and detained solely for his or her “political belief or political activity”.

“Political belief or political activity” is described as “engaging in a lawful activity through the expression of an opinion or the pursuit of a course of action made according to the tenets of a political party that is at the relevant time registered under the Societies Act 1966”.

There is concern among Malaysians about what is considered to be lawful or unlawful. The IGP considers the Kita Lawan rallies to be unlawful, whereas lawyers and protesters say there is a right to assemble peacefully. They challenge the arrests made under Section 143 of the Penal Code. The provision should only come into play, they say, when there is criminal force. They also say arrests should not be made under Section 9(5) of the Peaceful Assembly Act as it is, they say, null and void.

The CIJ and the SEAPA added in their statement today: “In the wake of multiple arrests and detentions of those seen to be critical of the government, it is even more important for the media to continue to play its part as the fourth estate to hold the pillars of government accountable and to keep the public informed.”

The Edge financial and investment news publication and The Malaysian Insider had  published a series of articles on the state investment vehicle 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and had questioned whether the sovereign wealth fund was able to service its debts, which reportedly amount to 42 billion ringgit, the CIJ and SEAPA said.

“Given the possible effect on the Malaysian economy and Malaysians’ well-being in general, it is important that media outfits continue to be free to investigate and report on such stories to keep the public informed and not fear disproportionate action from the police and government authorities in the carrying out of their duties,” they added.

The DAP secretary general and MP For Bagan, Lim Guan Eng, said in a statement that the IGP was “madly lying” when he said the police had adopted a “no tolerance” policy on sedition when no action was taken against UMNO leaders who made “seditious, false and provocative remarks against non-Muslims and non-Malays”.

Lim said the IGP was practising “blatant double standards and selective prosecution”.

Why was no-one from the pro-BN press arrested when they published lies, Lim asked. “I have won countless defamation suits against Utusan Malaysia and the New Straits Times (NST) and yet no Utusan or NST journalist has to suffer what TMI has to endure.”

The cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, better known as Zunar, who was arrested in February and fully expects to be charged under the Sedition Act this week, asked a similar question in a tweet on Monday. If errors in reporting could land editors in the lock-up, why, he asked, had none of the Utusan editors been arrested.

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