Malaysian police said Tuesday they would question journalists behind an Al Jazeera report on treatment of undocumented migrants during the COVID-19 pandemic, as part of an investigation into potential sedition, defamation and misuse of network facilities.
Authorities called the report baseless and likely to tarnish Malaysia’s image, even as an advocate for migrant workers described it as accurate and human rights groups questioned increased use of “abusive” laws to prosecute speech critical of the government.
“Yes, the media will be called up soon to answer some questions,” Inspector General of Police Abdul Hamid Bador told reporters Tuesday, when asked about the Al Jazeera report.
Hamid Bador said it was the responsibility of the Royal Malaysian Police (PDRM) “to find out whether there are any elements of sedition or wrongdoing in the eyes of the law.”
The 25-minute documentary, “Locked up in Malaysia’s Lockdown” depicts “military-style” round-ups to test foreign workers for COVID-19, and says those found to be without valid documents had been arrested and packed into detention centers that became infection hotspots.
It quotes a doctor saying the operations complicated efforts to screen migrant workers for disease, and that the pandemic exposed some “xenophobia and racism” in Malaysia.
The film, which aired last week under the Qatar-based news agency’s 101 East program, featured Al Jazeera senior producer Drew Ambrose who reported on the ground and spoke to migrants. It also contained cell-phone footage of migrant round-ups.
Ambrose and Al Jazeera did not respond to BenarNews’ requests for comment. The network turned off the comment section on its YouTube channel in response to a public uproar over the documentary.
Police reported receiving five complaints against Al Jazeera – four for the documentary and one for a related article posted on its website.
“The baseless and biased report had created unease among the majority of Malaysians as it seems like the government is treating parties which broadcast falsities about the country’s success in battling the pandemic with kid gloves,” said a statement issued Tuesday by Huzir Mohamed, director of the federal police criminal investigation department.
“PDRM would like to stress that no one can escape the law if there is an attempt made to tarnish Malaysia’s image.”
He said the investigation would consider whether the report violated the Sedition Act of 1948, the penal code for defamation, or the Communication and Multimedia Act 1998 for improper use of network facilities and network services.
Critics have long called for repeal of Malaysia’s sedition act, which bans speech or publications critical of the government or the nation’s royals. It also outlaws inciting hatred among races or religious groups.
The new government that took power in early March has been increasingly using such laws to investigate and prosecute speech critical of the government, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement issued in Bangkok last month.
“Like flicking a light switch, Malaysian authorities have returned to rights-abusing practices of the past, calling journalists, activists, and opposition figures into police stations to be questioned about their writing and social media posts,” said Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director.
Open apology sought
On Monday, senior minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who is in charge of the security, called the documentary unfair to Malaysians.
He said the crackdowns were carried out to contain the spread of COVID-19, and that even locals in areas with a high number of COVID-19 cases were locked up under Malaysia’s Enhanced Movement Control Order.
“It is also not true that the crackdown is racist in nature. All that was done was based on the law. The undocumented migrants were only picked up because they had no valid documents to be in the country,” he said.
Ismail urged Al Jazeera to issue an apology to all Malaysians for “spreading lies.”
Police on Tuesday questioned migrants’ right activist Heidy Quah, over a post on Facebook alleging mistreatment of refugees at Malaysian detention centers.
The activist said she had to surrender her mobile phone as part of the probe and was told that she made a false allegation in her Facebook post. Quah said she told police she would fully cooperate.
In May, police questioned Tashny Sukumaran, a journalist with the South China Morning Post, after she tweeted about a roundup of migrants, over allegations she shared offensive and menacing content online.
Meanwhile, Glorene Das, executive director of migrant rights group Tenaganita, said Al Jazeera’s reporting was supported by photos and videos her agency had provided.
“I had shared many of the photos and videos with them which we got from the communities affected,” she told BenarNews.
Das lambasted people who supported the crackdown, saying it did not reflect the sentiments of Malaysians in general.
“From the recent work we have carried out, in providing food aid and relief, for example, it was an eye-opener how Malaysians are generally charitable to come forward to assist and give,” she said.
At least 2 million foreign workers are legally employed in Malaysia, but estimates suggest another 4 million live and work in the country without proper documentation.
Hadi Azmi in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.