Malaysian police on Tuesday seized computers and other equipment from Al Jazeera’s Kuala Lumpur office as part of an investigation into a documentary by the Qatar-based network about the plight of migrant workers during coronavirus lockdowns, authorities said.
The raids on Al Jazeera and two local broadcasting stations, Astro and Unifi TV, were tied to a probe into a potential sedition and defamation case against Al Jazeera over the documentary that angered the government after the network aired it in early July, according to officials.
During Tuesday’s raids, equipment was removed from the local stations for analysis by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), officials said.
“[T]he Royal Malaysia Police carried out raids on three different locations involving Al Jazeera, Astro and Unifi TV broadcasting stations, based on search warrants issued by the Kuala Lumpur and Sepang Magistrate Courts,” said Huzir Mohamed, director of the federal police’s Criminal Investigation Department.
“[T]he actions taken were based on the law, and no individual nor entities would be spared from action if they clearly have violated the laws in force in Malaysia,” he said.
Early last month, police visited Al Jazeera’s local bureau in connection with the case before Abdul Hamid Bador, the nation’s police chief, announced that his department was summoning employees of the network, including members of the team that produced the documentary, for questioning over it.
On July 7, when he made the announcement, he said it was his agency’s responsibility “to find out whether there are any elements of sedition or wrongdoing in the eyes of the law.”
The 25-minute documentary, titled “Locked up in Malaysia’s Lockdown,” depicted “military-style” round-ups of undocumented foreign workers to test them for the coronavirus. The program alleged that foreigners without proper papers were picked up and packed into detention centers that became hotspots for COVID-19 infections.
Malaysian authorities have called the report “baseless,” saying it would likely tarnish Malaysia’s image.
‘A troubling escalation’
On Tuesday, Al Jazeera again said that it stood by its report as it issued a statement describing the raid on its Kuala Lumpur office as an attack on press freedom.
“Al Jazeera calls upon the Malaysian authorities to cease this criminal investigation into our journalists. Conducting a raid on our office and seizing computers is a troubling escalation in the authorities’ crackdown on media freedom and shows the lengths they are prepared to take to try to intimidate journalists,” said Giles Trendle, managing director of Al Jazeera English.
He refuted allegations from Malaysian authorities that the documentary was inaccurate, misleading and unfair, as he called for journalists to be allowed to report freely without intimidation.
Meanwhile, the local chapter of global rights watchdog Amnesty International condemned the raids on the media stations.
“The government’s crackdown on migrants and refugees, as well those who speak up in their defense, are clearly meant to silence and intimidate and should be condemned,” the group said in a statement.
Bangladeshi faces possible deportation
Two weeks after authorities questioned Al Jazeera journalists at police headquarters, Malaysian immigration officials on July 24 took into custody a Bangladeshi national, Md Rayhan Kabir, who was featured in the documentary speaking about the authorities’ alleged actions during the roundup of migrants.
He has since been placed under a 14-day police remand, after he was picked up following a manhunt for him.
On July 25, the Associated Press quoted the country’s immigration chief as saying “this Bangladeshi national will be deported and blacklisted from entering Malaysia forever.”
As of Tuesday, it remained unclear under what law Kabir was being held or what criminal offense he had committed. Police and immigration officials have not responded since July 28 to attempts by BenarNews for information about Kabir’s case.
During a parliamentary session on Tuesday, the country’s home minister shed some light on the reason for Kabir’s arrest and detention.
“Under the Immigration Act 1959/63, the Immigration director-general … can take action on any foreigner whom they feel is unwanted in our country. That is my explanation,” Minister Hamzah Zainuddin said as he responded to a question from another lawmaker about Kabir’s case.
“We can send back anyone who is unwanted. He is unwanted,” the minister said.