Sunday, March 3, 2013

Malaysia hit for detaining journalists, urged for more transparency

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MALOLOS CITY—Asian journalists hit Malaysian government and demanded greater transparency on armed stand-off in Sabah.

This came as three journalists of the Al-Jazeera including a Filipina covering the said stand-off were detained and interrogated by Malaysian authorities.

In a one page statement released Lon February 26,, Makati-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) along with Malaysia’s Center for Independent Journalism (CIJ) and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa) secretariat based in Bangkok demanded that Malaysian authorities follow two short term measures.

One, 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.

Two, 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 rumors abound in Malaysia regarding the “political negotiations/standoff” in Lahad Datu.

For medium term, the journalists groups also urged “the setting up a committee comprising of the authorities, journalists, editors, journalist union, media advocacy groups, human rights organizations 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.”

The groups said they understand the national security concerns as a result of the armed standoff, however, they expressed alarm over the length of detention of the three journalists  and 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.
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The statement added “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.”

They stressed that “it is even more important for the media to have adequate and safe access to be able to report on the situation accurately, given the impact on diplomatic relations between Philippines and Malaysia.”

On February 19, the three person news team of Al-Jazeera arrived in Sabah to report the “standoff“ between an armed group calling itself the “Royal Sulu Sultanate Army” and the Malaysian authorities which started on February 14.

The news team is composed of Al-Jazeera senior Asia correspondent Steve Chao, cameraman Mark Giddens and Filipina producer Jamela Aisha Alindogan.

The journalists were placed 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.

Citing statement issued by Al-Jazeera on February 22 and eyewitness accounts, the CMRF said that “the three were questioned for 30 minutes to two and half 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.”

While the journalists were treated politely throughout the whole detention period, the statement said that “interrogating officers were not in uniform and when asked, declined to provide their full names or rank.”

They also noted that as journalists attached to international media organizations,  Chao, Alindongan and Giddens, are equipped and trained to provide coverage during wars, standoffs, riots, uprisings and other hostile environments.

The statement also said the Malaysian authorities claimed that 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”.

It further said, “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.” Dino Balabo