Key international media organisations have spoken out in condemnation of Malaysia’s oppressive treatment of the media, following yesterday’s bizarre ruling by a Terengganu local magistrate that sentenced the writer of this site to two years in jail in absentia.
Amongst the organisations to so far raise their voice are Index on Censorship and Media Defence, both headquartered in the UK. The Committee to Protect Journalists based in Bangkok has also expressed concern.
The hearing, which was held in the home state of the plaintiff, the Sultanah of Terengganu, broke the rules of criminal procedure, according to numerous legal experts consulted by Sarawak Report, by conducting the proceedings in absentia and without notifying SR or its lawyers.
The KL lawyers representing Sarawak Report, Guok Partnership, have already filed a notice of appeal to the High Court invoking revisionary and supervisory powers to set aside the conviction and sentence owing to the violations of criminal procedure. Senior Partner, Guok Ngek Seong told Sarawak Report “The law in this regard is crystal clear“.
The grounds on which the case was moved to the plaintiff’s home state of Terengganu in 2021 are also the subject of concern (the complaint was originally filed in KL back in 2018).
Local news reports on the hearing strangely indicate that the magistrate stated the book was written in Terengganu as justification for the jurisdiction. Yet it is a place the author has never visited.
In fact, the book was written and published in the UK and is presently only available in the English language.
In a statement published today Media Defence, which has followed this matter for some years, said the organisation:
“.. condemns today’s prison sentence imposed, in absentia, on Clare Rewcastle Brown, the founder and editor of the Sarawak Report – a media outlet reporting on environmental and corruption issues in Malaysia….
Additionally, Media Defence express concern over potential attempts to harass Rewcastle Brown through politically motivated charges, reminiscent of past actions against her by Malaysian authorities.
This pattern raises serious concerns that the legal actions against Rewcastle Brown are intended to silence the journalist – particularly considering her role in exposing corruption within Malaysia’s political elite. Such attempts to suppress free speech undermine democratic principles and can result in a major chilling effect.
Although press freedom is theoretically guaranteed in the region by article 10 of the constitution, which provides for free expression – the government applies significant political pressure to discourage media coverage of sensitive topics and to silence criticism of politicians and officials. Discussion or reporting critical of the monarchy is prohibited, with severe penalties imposed, fostering widespread self-censorship on the matter.
This baseless conviction and sentence are further examples of the type of harassment suffered by independent journalists in Malaysia. Media Defence call for its immediate and unconditional overturning.”
Index on Censorship tweeted likewise:
“We condemn this ruling and call for it to be immediately and unconditionally quashed. Media freedom is not a crime”
Shawn Crispin, the Committee to Protects Journalist’s senior Southeast Asia representative, said on Friday:
“Malaysia should scrap the outrageous prison sentence given to Clare Rewcastle Brown and stop harassing the journalist over her crucial reporting on the country’s 1MDB scandal, recognized as one of the world’s biggest-ever corruption cases.”
NGO’s will now be applying for information from INTERPOL to ascertain whether the Malaysian authorities will once again attempt to follow up on rulings in this case to issue a global Red Notice Alert (usually reserved for dangerous criminals and terrorists) in order to arrest and extradite the journalist. Two previous such attempts were rejected by the international law enforcement agency on the grounds they were abusive.
Campaigners for legal reform in Malaysia itself have pointed out the development reflects a prevailing perception that talk of return to the rule of law and protection of free media under the present government has yet to be matched by any sign that abusive practices and the use of abusive legislation to intimidate journalists and critics of those in office have abated.
Meanwhile, public comments on the case have included the question why, if the journalist who exposed 1MDB can be jailed in absentia for a book about the scandal, the fugitive fixer behind the theft, the Malaysian Jho Taek Low, has himself not been convicted likewise?