Malaysian police Friday questioned five Australian journalists from Al Jazeera over a documentary about the plight of migrants which authorities have denounced as inaccurate, as the broadcaster expressed shock at the probe. The journalists were questioned in Malaysia over charges of sedition.
The investigation into the Qatar-based network’s programme has added to concerns about a widening media crackdown in Malaysia after a scandal-plagued party came to power earlier this year.
Journalists questioned by Malaysia over documentary
In addition to the Al Jazeera case, the head of a leading news portal has been accused of contempt of court while a health news site’s editor is being probed over an article.
Malaysia investigating Al Jazeera journalists for potential sedition charges. Our staff have also received death threats and been doxxed. Network stands by the documentary that has prompted the investigation. https://t.co/50HqPdxP0v
— Barry Malone (@malonebarry) July 10, 2020
The documentary, “Locked Up in Malaysia’s Lockdown”, looked at the detention of undocumented foreigners during a coronavirus lockdown, as well as the plight of other members of the migrant community.
But the government decried it as misleading and inaccurate, and police are now investigating the broadcaster for breaking laws against sedition, defamation and transmitting offensive content.
On Friday six Al Jazeera staff members were called in for questioning by police in Kuala Lumpur over the documentary made for “101 East”, a weekly show featuring in-depth investigations.
Five of the six are Australian, according to Australian union the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance.
The staff — including a bureau chief, correspondent, an executive producer, a producer and a cameraman — were accompanied by their lawyers as they arrived at the station, where a media scrum was waiting.
Lawyer Hisyam Teh Poh Teik told reporters that the journalists “refute all the charges”.
“There was no intent by Al Jazeera to create any mischief,” he said.
Al Jazeera shocked by Malaysia’s response
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade confirmed it was providing assistance to a number of Australians in Kuala Lumpur.
Ahead of the questioning, Al Jazeera said it was “shocked” by Malaysia’s response to the documentary, broadcast on July 3, and it stood by the “professionalism, quality and impartiality of its journalism”.
“Charging journalists for doing their jobs is not the action of a democracy that values free speech,” it said. “Journalism is not a crime.”
Al Jazeera’s English-language channel has its Asian base in Kuala Lumpur.
The International Federation of Journalists, which represents media unions worldwide, said it “deeply regrets” Malaysian authorities using tough laws against transmitting offensive content “to silence and intimidate journalists”. Malaysia journalists questioned
The network defended its journalism and expressed “deep concern” about the investigation.
The police have said they are investigating the staff about potential sedition, defamation and violation of the country’s Communications and Multimedia Act.
The show sparked a backlash online, and the defence minister demanded an apology from the broadcaster.
Malaysian authorities defend their actions
Authorities said the arrests in May of undocumented migrants was necessary to protect the public, although rights groups raised concern that placing them in detention centres could increase the risk of coronavirus infection.
Malaysia is home to large numbers of migrants from poorer countries — including Indonesia, Bangladesh and Myanmar — who work in industries ranging from manufacturing to agriculture.
Last month, More than 260 Rohingya arrived by boat in Malaysia, officials said, despite authorities’ efforts to fight the coronavirus by stopping entry of the Muslim minority.
Read more: Rohingya arrive in Malaysia and are detained Malaysia journalists questioned
On inspecting the boat, authorities found another 216 Rohingya and the body of a dead woman, according to a statement from a task force overseeing maritime patrols.
“Investigations also revealed the boat was intentionally damaged and… could not be repaired,” the statement said, adding this “resulted in the push-back effort being halted”.
Food and water were provided to the migrants and the boat was taken to Langkawi, where all 269 were detained, it said.
Concern has been growing about worsening freedom of expression in Malaysia since a reformist government collapsed in February and a coalition headed by a scandal-plagued party seized power.
One of the country’s leading independent news portals, Malaysiakini, faces contempt of court proceedings next week over reader comments on its site that were critical of the judiciary.
The step taken by Malaysia where they questioned journalists is going to make it difficult for them to escape claims of media censorship.
AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk