THE Centre for Independent Journalism expresses its support and happiness at the acquittal of activist Irene Fernandez of the charge of maliciously publishing false news pertaining to conditions at immigration detention centres.
However, we share her sentiments that the acquittal was a result of the prosecution’s decision not to fight the appeal and not because of the facts of the case and in challenging the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA), which affects not just the media, but also individuals and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who want to expose issues.
Fernandez was arrested and charged in 1996 under Section 8A(1) of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 over a memorandum released in 1995 entitled Abuse, Torture and Dehumanised Conditions of Migrant Workers in Detention Centres. She had alleged incidences of torture as well as deaths of undocumented migrants who were detained in the camps.
In one of the longest trials in Malaysia, Fernandez won her appeal against the Magistrate’s Court judgment in 2003 where she was sentenced to one-year jail for the offence. She was allowed bail pending her appeal to the higher court.
The PPPA, together with a host of other laws such as the Official Secrets Act (OSA) and the Internal Security Act (ISA) have been used to stifle criticism and dissent of the government. Politicians from the opposition political parties, NGO leaders and individuals like bloggers have been investigated and/or charged under these laws for raising questions about government decision and enforcement.
Fernandez’s disclosure of the conditions in the detention camps is a matter of human rights concern and should have been treated as a basis for investigation. Under Article 10 of the Federal Constitution, it was her right to free speech to share the information in the interest of the rights of detainees at the centre. Instead, as a whistleblower, she was charged for maliciously publishing information.
This is one of the threats facing human rights defenders in Malaysia where they are subject to prosecution for exposing wrongdoings or human rights violations.
Early last year, four opposition leaders from PAS, DAP and PKR were investigated under the OSA for making public a toll concessionaire agreement to show how the government had guaranteed profits for the private company.
Blogger Nathaniel Tan was also investigated under the OSA for a posting in his blog in July last year. A blogger, a journalist and an elected representative were arrested under the ISA for reasons that are still questionable.
While the CIJ is of the opinion that Fernandez should not have been prosecuted for making an important disclosure, we recognise the case also reflects the lack of confidence in the judicial process with incidents of missing files and proceeding notes that could not be read.
According to news reports of the court proceeding, it was revealed that statements of important prosecution witnesses were found to be missing, and this August, Fernandez was told that a computer virus had wiped out a portion of a specific volume of notes required for the trial.
This was made worse two months later when Fernandez’s lawyer M Puravalen said that the 8,988 pages of handwritten and typed notes amounting to a total of eight volumes of documents were “incomprehensible”.
CIJ calls for the repeal of the PPPA and the other laws that have clearly targeted independent and vocal critics of the government, and for the authorities to protect whistleblowers in the interest of exposing wrongdoings and abuses.
The government should treat genuine complaints and exposes with the interest of addressing them and to give assurances that whistleblowers are protected. This can be done through the enactment of a Whistleblower Protection Act or to have a Freedom of Information Act where information like those disclosed by Irene, or the politicians and bloggers, will be available for public scrutiny.
Centre for Independent Journalism