PETALING JAYA: Experts have voiced concern that the government’s response to a recent Al Jazeera documentary on Malaysia’s treatment of undocumented migrants during the Covid-19 pandemic is indicative of a more restrictive policy towards freedom of expression.
The report titled “Locked up in Malaysia’s Lockdown” on Al Jazeera’s 101 East programme on July 3 was slammed by ministers as inaccurate and unfair.
The government said the global news channel was being probed for sedition, defamation and improper use of network facilities, and the team behind the report was called in by police for questioning.
The experts noted that previous hard-hitting 101 East reports on Malaysia had not been met by the same level of outrage despite also alluding to mistreatment of migrants and alleging government corruption.
James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, suggested that the crackdown against “bad news” was not limited to Al Jazeera.
He cited the ban on the book “Rebirth: Reformasi, Resistance, and Hope in New Malaysia” over the coat of arms issue, the probe on South China Morning Post correspondent Tashny Sukumaran for her report on undocumented migrant arrests in May, and the investigation against CodeBlue’s editor-in-chief Boo Su-Lyn over articles on the findings of an independent inquiry into a fire at Hospital Sultanah Aminah in Johor Bahru which killed six people in 2016 as other instances of government action against the media.
Because of the manner in which it came into power, the government appears less receptive to negative news which may have the tendency of questioning its legitimacy and competence, Chin said.
“The report is damaging as it is an international (broadcast) and calls into question the government’s competence in terms of rounding up migrants and mistreating them,” he said.
He said that apart from the largely successful response to the Covid-19 pandemic, a lot of other news about the government internationally had been negative.
“If you look at it from that perspective, that’s why they are a bit worried, because this report also paints a negative view about their handling of Covid-19,” he said.
“(That is) why they are reacting strongly to it.”
Aira Azhari, manager of the democracy and governance unit at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), also noted that activists and politicians had been called in for questioning over their social media postings, while police were reported to have contacted the participants of a youth-run virtual parliament session.
“This trend suggests higher intolerance for dissenting viewpoints, perhaps motivated by the need to quell differing opinions,” Aira said.
While Covid-19 was not a factor in the report, she said the pandemic had brought to the forefront the longstanding problem of mistreatment of foreign workers, leakages and poor governance that allow the situation to continue, and rising xenophobic sentiments within certain sections of the Malaysian public.
Khoo Ying Hooi, secretary-general of the Society for the Promotion of Human Rights (Proham), told FMT a better approach to dealing with any concerns about the report would have been to engage with Al Jazeera in a dialogue.
Instead, Khoo said, the government’s response had “imposed fear and jeopardised media freedom”, a stance which 35 NGOs, including Proham, endorsed last week in a joint statement by The Centre for Independent Journalism.
“Instead of rebutting the documentary with evidence and facts, the government sadly has taken an overly defensive approach to the extent of using the Sedition Act and Penal Code on Al Jazeera’s reporters,” she said.
“They should rebut the documentary if they think the contents are not true but thus far, they have not been using a constructive approach in managing this issue.”
Al Jazeera defended the report as balanced despite being shunned by senior government officials and prohibited from attending ministerial press briefings. It also claimed that repeated requests for interviews were not accepted.
101 East had previously featured other reports on Malaysia which touched on undocumented workers, with one in 2014 titled “Malaysia’s unwanted” also showing immigration officials rounding up illegal immigrants and bringing them to detention centres.
A woman claimed in the report she had to drink toilet water at a detention centre, which also held children in contravention of international law. A senior Al Jazeera presenter was also said to have visited an immigration detention centre disguised as a priest, where he lent a detainee his phone for her to call her family.
Another 101 East report in 2017 titled “Malaysia’s Migrant Money Trail” alleged that corrupt officers in the home ministry and Immigration Department helped undocumented migrants enter Malaysia to work illegally.
It also claimed worker recruitment companies owned by members of a political party had violated immigration laws and bribed Indonesian embassy officials to bring foreign workers in.
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