Malaysian police questioned a reporter for a major regional newspaper on Wednesday over tweets about a migrant roundup as rights groups warned that the new government could be reviving old practices of media suppression.
Tashny Sukumaran, a staff writer for the South China Morning Post, was questioned for two hours at federal police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, her lawyer said.
She is being investigated for allegedly sharing offensive and menacing content online as well as for intentional insults and provocation to disrupt the public peace, attorney Sin Yew New said.
“The government is harassing Tashny by investigating her for tweets made in the course of her duties as a journalist. This is an assault on press freedom by the government, which is absolutely vital in times of crisis like what we are facing currently,” the lawyer told BenarNews.
Sukumaran declined comment as she emerged from the building with her lawyer. The reporter is being investigated under Malaysia’s Communications and Multimedia Act and Section 504 of its Penal Code, Sin Yew New said.
The Post, a Hong Kong-based newspaper, did not immediately publish a report on the appearance by its reporter at police headquarters or issue a statement on Wednesday.
Her questioning by police occurred three days after the communications minister said the journalist had the right to publish her story.
In his official Twitter feed on May 3, Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said he had directed the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission to not act against Sukumaran.
“I may not like your piece but I will defend your right to write it. Yesterday, (Health Ministry Director General Noor Hisham) has clarified the issue you raised – this is the way to do it. In this example, clarify and explain,” Saifuddin said in response to a tweet by Sukumaran over the investigation into her reporting.
Two days earlier, Sukumaran posted a tweet thread recounting her experiences at the Selangor Mansion area in Kuala Lumpur that was under the enhanced Movement Control Order (MCO) because of a coronavirus cluster identified there. The MCO is the Malaysian government’s name for its coronavirus lockdown.
“This is ridiculous. Hours after the announcement on relaxed measures, the authorities start arresting people left and right (despite) Malaysia not having beaten COVID-19 yet. Now migrant workers, refugees, and other vulnerable groups will go underground and not come forward even if ill,” she wrote.
“I am running out of fingers on which to count the human rights abuses that have transpired in just a few hours.”
A joint operation involving the Royal Malaysia Police, the Immigration Department, the Malaysian Armed Forces and the Ministry of Health was carried out at that site to contain the COVID-19 spread, according to authorities.
Speaking to national news agency Bernama on Saturday, Inspector-General of Police Abdul Hamid Bador said authorities launched the operation to ensure that no undocumented immigrants snuck out from identified areas and spread the disease somewhere else.
Ismail Sabri Yaakob, a senior minister for defense, said those detained were placed in humane conditions where social distancing was being observed.
On Sunday, Sukumaran responded to the communications minister’s tweet.
“I appreciate your gesture, but it doesn’t change the fact that I am still being harassed by the police for doing my job as a reporter,” she tweeted.
“I’m afraid it is not our job to write what the government likes. We write based on observation, interviews, fact,” she wrote.
She also highlighted other challenges faced by reporters, particularly those reporting for foreign media. Those challenges include being excluded from official communication channels such as the Prime Minister’s Office official WhatsApp group.
Ushar Daniele, a journalist working for a Middle East news network, echoed Sukumaran’s concern regarding lack of access.
“We have to rely on statements shared by peers from the local side of the industry,” Ushar told BenarNews.
Saifuddin could not be immediately reached for comment and the prime minister’s office did not respond to BenarNews regarding foreign media restrictions.
Meanwhile as it marked World Press Freedom Day on Sunday, Malaysian media advocacy group Gerakan Media Merdeka (Geramm) cited Sukumaran’s case as it implored the government to not revive certain legacies of the Barisan Nasional government, which had ruled the country for decades.
“Restrictions against any media outlet from attending press conferences held at the prime minister’s office should not be revisited, even with the current limitation of ensuring adherence to the ‘social distancing’ guidelines,” the statement said.
“Any COVID-19 prevention measures which has and will be taken must not be at the expense of the media’s role as a check-and-balance to the government,” Geramm said.
The Barisan bloc was defeated by the upstart Pakatan Harapan coalition in the 2018 general election on a promise to clean up government. But the Pakatan government collapsed earlier this year. It was replaced by a new ruling coalition headed by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and that includes the United Malays National Organization, the anchor party of Barisan Nasional.
Human Rights Watch was among groups that denounced the action against Sukumaran.
“The police made a patently absurd decision to call in Tashny Sukumaran for questioning on her news article about the May Day migrant arrests,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for the rights watchdog, said in a news release. “A truly professional police force would have simply dismissed the complaint as having no grounds and told the complainants to go play politics somewhere else.
“Sadly, Malaysia’s government is dragging the country back towards its bad-old human-rights abusing past, when harassing independent journalists doing their job was a regular tactic to seek to contain press freedom.”
The questioning came weeks after Reporters Without Borders praised Malaysia under the Pakatan government for showing great improvement in its treatment of journalists. The country jumped 22 spots to land in 101st place out of 180 countries on the group’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index, released on April 22.
Malaysia outranked Southeast Asian neighbors including Indonesia, 119, the Philippines, 136, Myanmar, 139, Thailand, 140, Cambodia, 144, Brunei, 152, Singapore, 158, Laos, 172, and Vietnam, 175.