Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-MALAYSIA: On a Media-suing Spree

R Mageswary

KUALA LUMPUR, May 30 1999 (IPS) - Malaysia has never really been known as a media-friendly state, but a flurry of defamation lawsuits filed in recent months against journalists and media organisations has made this all the more clear.

Worse, say lawyers and media observers alike, it could only make an already cowed press even more cautious in their reports — and further frustrating Malaysians hungry for more accurate information about their country.

“This is just stifling,” says Malaysian Bar Council chairman R R Chelvarajah, expressing concern over the sudden rise in media- related lawsuits, most of which seek millions of ringgit in damages.

“It could instill a culture of fear among the journalists and prevent them from reporting the truth,” he adds, despite the emergence of more alternative sources of information in the country.

‘Berita Harian’ daily editor Ahmad Rejal Arbee agrees, adding that “journalists would find it harder to do their work”.

In March, the son of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad filed a 200- million ringgit (52 million U.S. dollars) defamation case against the Dow Jones Publishing Co. (Asia) Inc., publisher of the ‘Asian Wall Street Journal’.

Mirzan Mahathir filed the suit over an article that indicated his ascent in business circles was due to special treatment from Malaysian companies and banks.

He is also suing the local Chinese newspapers ‘Guang Ming Daily’, ‘China Press’ and ‘Sin Chew Jit Poh’, which translated and reported the piece, for a total of 750 million ringgit (197.4 million dollars).

April saw the filing of a libel case against local writer Sabri Zain. Complainant Umi Hafilda — star prosecution witness in the sexual misconduct trial of sacked Deputy Premier Anwar Ibrahim — says he portrayed her as a “cheap prostitute” in an article published earlier this year.

Then there is local tycoon Vincent Tan, who is suing University of Malaya economist K S Jomo, the ‘Asian Wall Street Journal’ and Dow Jones over an article that he says tarnished his business reputation. He wants 100 million ringgit (26.3 million dollars) in damages.

While foreign journalists and publishing companies seem to be getting the brunt of this litigious attitude adopted by some of the country’s well-known figures, observers say these “outsiders” are not the real target. They also reject the theory that the lawsuits are primarily motivated by money.

“There is no denying that the money is catchy,” says one government critic, who declines to be identified. “But there are political forces pushing the buttons.”

According to the critic, the lawsuits are being used by the government: “(They) are the best way to ensure that no bad reports about the government appears in the media.”

Just in February, the government said it would create a legal team especially aimed at media people who dare defame the administration and its officials.

Says Deputy Premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi: “There have been to many instances where individuals take advantage of freedom of speech to make all sorts of accusations and allegations against the party leaders and the government. This unhealthy practice cannot be allowed to go on.”

Observers then had found this ironic since the Malaysian media have long been seen as propaganda tools of the government. Major papers and broadcast stations, in fact, are controlled by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the dominant party in the ruling coalition.

Malaysia also has laws that curb freedom of the press and expression, including the Internal Security Act (ISA), under which people can be detained without trial.

There is also the Official Secrets Act that prevents journalists from accessing information in any official document labelled as secret, and the Printing Presses and Publications Act, which grants the Home Minister the power to give or withdraw printing licences.

Still, in the wake of the ‘reformasi’ movement sparked by the arrest last year of former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim, more and more Malaysians have turned to alternative sources of information like the Internet.

For many, these alternative sources provide better and balanced reporting on the country.

The clamour for less biased news is expected to intensify as general elections, which Mahathir has to call before April 2000, near.

But as a result of the recent rash of libel lawsuits, however, some of the alternative news sources seem to be suffering from the so-called “chilling effect”.

The government critic says the few local papers that used to give equal voice to the opposition and non-government groups no longer appear to do so.

A senior local journalist, meanwhile, reveals that her work has been greatly affected. “I am afraid of losing my job and everything else,” she confesses. “How could I possibly pay millions of ringgit?”

Indeed, she has reason to worry. Tycoon Tan, for instance, was awarded 10 million ringgit (2.63 million dollars) in damages by the High Court in a defamation case he filed five years ago against a foreign correspondent and six local journalists, who wrote about his business interests.

Foreign journalist Murray Hiebert was found guilty of contempt of court and meted a three-month jail sentence in 1997 for an article he wrote in the ‘Far Eastern Economic Review’, another Dow Jones publication, that the court said damaged the judiciary’s reputation. His case is currently on appeal.

Chelvarajah says the Bar Council may propose that present defamation laws be reviewed or amended to protect freedom of speech. It has formed a panel to monitor defamation suits in which complainants seek huge damages.

 
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