Letter: Ministers’ reactions to unverified news reports deeply disturbing

The Malaysian Bar is deeply concerned about the report that appeared on the front page of Utusan Malaysia on Saturday, 7 May 2011, entitled “Malaysia negara Kristian?”

Without offering any evidence save references to postings by bloggers, which do not appear to have been separately and independently verified, Utusan Malaysia saw fit to publish this story.

Given the highly controversial nature of the alleged story, it is incumbent on any self-respecting newspaper to ensure that its reporting is fact-checked. To have printed such a story without checking with the subjects of the alleged incidents is highly irresponsible on the part of Utusan Malaysia, and is nothing short of gutter journalism.

What concerns the Malaysian Bar further is the fact that Utusan Malaysia appears to be able to offer such so-called journalism in a climate of impunity.  Instead of questioning Utusan Malaysia’s journalistic conduct and ethics, the immediate responses from the ministers in charge of home affairs and communications were to order investigations into the alleged incidents themselves.

It appears that it is enough for the police to launch an investigation once a report has been made, without first investigating the veracity of such reports themselves.

The whole process of making police reports has thus been turned into an avenue to invade the privacy of dinner parties and closed-door meetings, without first asking whether the maker of such reports has ulterior motives. People are then being made to respond to police investigations launched on the flimsiest of reasons and to defend their freedom of assembly and speech.

This is a mockery of the principle of justice that someone who is accused of wrongdoing is innocent until proven guilty.  This is clearly a dangerous erosion of the fundamental liberties enshrined in our Federal Constitution, and must be stopped.

By immediately investigating the alleged incidents rather than those who made the reports, the authorities have shown favoured irresponsible parties how they can wantonly instil fear and religious disharmony in the country.

All they have to do now is to make unproven and unsubstantiated allegations in any compliant national newspaper and the law enforcement authorities will do the rest. In this way, the authorities are gullibly assisting those who seek to play up lies and falsehoods in order to artificially create religious conflict.

In creating and/or highlighting this “non-news” item, these irresponsible parties seek to manoeuvre and manipulate current events so as to give the impression that certain elements within a particular community are working to cause disunity and perpetrate treasonous activities.

This dastardly deed by such reckless parties must be seen for what it is – a naked and blatant act of deliberate provocation.  The aim appears to be to cause fear through the creation of false news.  The lodging of police reports throughout the country seeks to invite the police to investigate a particular community, thus heightening emotions.

This then conveniently provides the authorities with a false justification to tighten control of blogs and other forms of electronic media, thereby muzzling free speech, open dialogue and informed discussions.

Any independent observer of the mass media would reach the conclusion that Utusan Malaysia is beyond the reach of the law. Although the Malaysian Bar opposes the use of oppressive laws, including the Sedition Act 1948 and the Printing Press and Publications Act 1984, the Government threatens to wield such laws against those who voice dissent, hence acting in what is perceived as an arbitrary, or even biased, manner.

The Malaysian Bar is concerned that no action has been taken against Utusan Malaysia although it has persistently published intemperate and wild accusations, written in inflammatory language, which threaten Malaysia’s social fabric. Utusan Malaysia continues to act with impunity, and thus appears to enjoy a status that is above the law.

We call on the authorities to instead investigate the Utusan Malaysia journalists and editors responsible for perpetrating such repeated attempts to instil fear and spread falsehood.

Lim Chee Wee

President, Malaysian Bar Council