[Original title: Media rights groups slam detention of Al-Jazeera journalists in Malaysia, call for greater transparency]
We, the undersigned organisations which advocate for media freedom and responsibility in South-East Asia, regret the unnecessary detention and interrogation of three Al-Jazeera journalists who were reporting an armed standoff near Lahad Datu, Sabah, on 20 Feb 2013.
The journalists arrived in Sabah on 19 February to report the “standoff“ between an armed group calling itself the “Royal Sulu Sultanate Army” and the Malaysian authorities which started on 14February.
The Al Jazeera news crew comprising of senior Asia correspondent Steve Chao, producer Jamela Alindogan and cameraperson Mark Giddens were under the detention of Malaysian authorities for at least six hours, during which they were intercepted at sea off Tanjung Labian village, escorted to a local police station, transferred to another police station 30 minutes’ drive away while under armed escort, and questioned by the Malaysian Special Branch, before being released.
According to a statement issued by Al Jazeera on 22 February and eyewitness accounts, the three were questioned for 30 minutes to 2 1/2 hours each, sometimes together but also separately. Alindogan, a Filipina attached to the Al Jazeera English Network office in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, was questioned the longest at 2 1/2 hours, and was accused several times of working for the “Royal Sulu Sultanate Army”, despite showing the authorities her employee ID.
When asked during the detention, the Malaysian authorities said the security zone around the standoff area was off-limit to civilians and media to avoid “disrupt(ing) political negotiations” with the “Royal Sulu Sultanate Army” and that this was a “sensitive political situation”. The Malaysian authorities also said they were not allowed to specify the boundaries of the “no-go security zone” but acknowledged that when intercepted, the boat with the journalists on board was far from the “no-go security zone” and that the journalists had not broken any laws.
The journalists were treated politely throughout the whole detention period. However, the interrogating officers were not in uniform and when asked, declined to provide their full names or rank. Chao, Alindongan and Giddens, as journalists attached to international media organisations, are equipped and trained to provide coverage during wars, standoffs, riots, uprisings and other hostile environments.
Centre for Independent Journalism in Malaysia, Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility in the Phillipines, with Southeast Asian Press Alliance secretariat based in Bangkok understand the national security concerns as a result of this armed “standoff”. However, we find the length of detention of the three journalists unnecessarily long and the line of questioning on Alindongan to be unwarranted. We find the secrecy surrounding the identity of the interrogating officers to be unnecessary given that the ones being questioned were not criminal suspects but journalists on duty and identifiable as such.
In addition, we view the vague restrictions imposed on journalists covering the Lahad Datu “political negotiation/standoff” as an attempt at limiting journalists’ access at providing accurate, timely and fair coverage of a public interest security issue, especially given the looming elections in Malaysia. Given the impact on diplomatic relations between Philippines and Malaysia, it is even more important for the media to have adequate and safe access to be able to report on the situation accurately.
In view of the above, we urge the Malaysian authorities to take these measures in the short-term:
1. Make public the boundaries of the “no-go security zone” in the affected area to ensure civilians and media do not endanger their lives by breaching the limits.
2. Hold periodic press conferences to update the media on the “political negotiations” which are taking place to ensure media (and therefore public) official access to information around this public interest issue. This move will also allay the fear and uncertainty among people in the area and address the rumours abound in Malaysia regarding the “political negotiations/standoff” in Lahad Datu.
In addition, as a medium-term measure, we urge the setting up a committee comprising of the authorities, journalists, editors, journalist union, media advocacy groups, human rights organisations and other civil society groups, to draw up a “standard operating procedure” on how security authorities should deal with the media during conflict situations, using UNESCO guidelines as the benchmark. This initiative must be led by the Home Minister to show there is political will to stop future infringements on journalists on duty during conflict/armed situations.
The Malaysian authorities must show that it respects and understands the important role media plays during these important events
1. The Centre for Independent Journalism, Malaysia is a non-profit organisation that aspires for a society that is democratic, just and free, where all peoples will enjoy free media and the freedom to express, seek and impart information.
Masjaliza Hamzah, executive officer
Tel: +60 16-338 6603
2. The Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility was organised in 1989 as a private, non-stock, non-profit organisation involving the different sectors of society in the task of building up the press and news media as a pillar of democratic society. Its programs uphold press freedom, promote responsible journalism, and encourage journalistic excellence.
Melinda Quintos de Jesus, executive director
Tel: (+632) 840-09-03
3. The Southeast Asian Press Alliance is a Bangkok-based network of media advocacy and journalist organizations working for a free and responsible media environment in the region.
Ms. Gayathry Venkiteswaran, Executive Director
Ms Kulachada Chaipipat, Campaigns Coordinator
Tel: +66 2 243 5579