Control of information handicaps Sarawak elections, civil society groups claim

[The following is a joint media statement co-signed by the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), SEAPA’s associate member based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia:]

On 16 April 2011, close to one million voters in Sarawak will choose their new state government. In order to exercise this right, they require accurate and timely information about the candidates, political parties and election manifestos, as well as the crucial issues of the day.

However, we, the undersigned civil society organisations, note that there have been serious incidents and factors ahead of the 10th state elections which are preventing Sarawakians from seeking, receiving and sharing vital information that can help them decide on their representatives and government:

• The massive cyberattacks targeting two critical news sites within the campaign period. Sarawak Report (http://www.sarawakreport.org/), which has been publishing detailed allegations about chief minister Taib Mahmud and his family’s extensive business interests, disproportionate wealth and massive land grabs, had faced interrruptions the week before which climaxed into a full-scale Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack on 10 April. The attack rendered the site inaccessible for three days, eventually forcing the owners to publish from a new address (http://www1.sarawakreport.org/).Popular news portal Malaysiakini (http://www.malaysiakini.com) was attacked in the same manner on 12 April, incapacitating its two locally hosted servers and forcing the owners of the paid subscription site to resort to Facebook, WordPress and other free publishing platforms to get their news out.

• The nexus between politics and business in media ownership and control. With all media in the state under the ownership and control of both federal and Sarawak governments, critical issues regarding native customary land, poverty, the alleged rape of Penan women by logging company employees, and governance matters during Taib’s 30-year rule are under-reported or even censored. A recent example of such control was reported by Malaysiakini on 13 April, which said TV stations under the media conglomerate Media Prima, which is linked to the dominant ruling party UMNO, have been ordered not to broadcast footage of the opposition’s nightly talks in various towns that have been drawing capacity crowds. There is also the still pertinent suspension of Paul Si, the executive editor of top local English daily “Sarawak Tribune”, for publishing on the front page on 30 August 2010, a report by national news agency BERNAMA, entitled, “Is Taib Mahmud testing the waters?” which questioned the chief minister’s claim of retiring soon. Although the suspension, for which a gag order was also issued, was said to be for two weeks, Si remains in cold storage till today.

• The absence of free airtime for candidates. Most rural Sarawakians depend on radio and television for information, so the state broadcaster, Radio Television Malaysia (RTM) is duty-bound to provide free airtime for all candidates to deliver their message to the voters. Televised debates are a common feature of election campaigns in many democracies.

We regret that the Election Commission (EC) has refused to call on RTM to provide for free airtime and televised debates even though the state agency has the constitutional duty under Article 115(2) of the Elections Act 1958, to assist the EC in the running of elections.

• The arrest of two Sarawakian indigenous rights activists over possession of critical material. Abun Sui Anyit, a human rights and land rights lawyer, was arrested at Miri Airport on 6 January under the Sedition Act, for possession of CDs and leaflets containing reports from Radio Free Sarawak and TV Sarawak Bebas alleging Taib of corruption. Nicholas Mujah, the secretary of the Sarawak Dayak Association and another vocal land rights activist, was arrested in Kuching after police seized more than 1,000 CDs from his office around the same time, but under the Film Censorship Act. Both have been freed on police bail, but investigations are ongoing.

• The barring of activists from other states from entering Sarawak. While the Sarawak government has the power under Section 65 (I)(a) of the Immigration Act 1959/1963 to control who enters the state, this power has been abused to prevent non-Sarawakian activists critical of Taib from direct engagement with the people. A 1994 ban on native rights activist Jannie Lasimbang was invoked in 2010 when she tried to enter the state in her new capacity as a National Human Rights Commissioner. Upon protest, the ban was lifted a few months later, but on condition that she stayed away from activities ‘detrimental’ to the interests of the state.

More recently, political activist Steven Ng, academic-activist Wong Chin Huat and lawyer-activist Haris Ibrahim were stopped by Kuching airport immigration officers from entering the state on orders of the state security, on 3, 8 and 13 April, respectively.

These incidents and factors point to a pattern of political control of information regarding the incumbent state government in an environment that already heavily favours them. While urban residents have access to the messages of opposition and independent candidates via the nightly talks being held in towns and cities, much of the population is in remote areas reachable only by boats, a communications option that is further limited by the 10-day campaign period set by the Election Commission. The poor infrastructure and physical difficulties posed by the mountainous terrain meant that the media with the biggest reach is radio, which is under the government’s licensing control, although there is now the “whistleblower” Radio Free Sarawak.

As such, Sarawakians are being shortchanged of information that can help them to vote wisely, with repercussions beyond their borders since this is the first state elections in Malaysia after the 2008 general elections that shook the hegemony of the Barisan Nasional.

We strongly protest the malicious cyber attacks which limit the people’s access to information and violates the right to free expression and urge the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission to investigate this case under the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 for abuse of computer facilities.

We reiterate the need to repeal repressive media laws such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 and Sedition Act 1948, which have severely hindered the people’s right to freedom of expression – especially crucial during elections.

We also urge for the amendment of election laws to require state-run television and radio stations to provide for free air time for all candidates and political parties.

Unless the above vital issues are addressed seriously by the powers-that-be, democracy in Malaysia remains an illusion while its people shackled by draconian laws.

Jointly issued by:

Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) Malaysia
Charter2000-Aliran
Writers’ Alliance for Media Independence (WAMI)

For more information, contact: Masjaliza Hamzah, CIJ Executive Officer, 016-379 5901; Anil Netto and Mustafa K Anuar, Charter 2000-Aliran coordinators, aliran@streamyx.com; or Wong Chin Huat, WAMI chairperson, chinhuatw@gmail.com.

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CIJ 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. cijmalaysia.org

Charter2000-Aliran is a group of Malaysian individuals and organisations committed to striving for media freedom in Malaysia through the promotion of a media charter to raise public awareness.

WAMI is a group of writers for the Chinese media in Malaysia, which aims to defend and promote media independence for freer public discussion and wider democratic space. It was formed by about 90 writers who quit writing for the mainstream Chinese media in May 2001 in protest over the coerced takeover of the non-partisan Nanyang Press by the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), a ruling coalition member party.