Indonesian journalists wearing masks observe World Press Freedom Day in Jakarta, Indonesia, May 3, 2016. Photo: AFP Forum
Indonesian journalists wearing masks observe World Press Freedom Day in Jakarta, Indonesia, May 3, 2016. Photo: AFP Forum

Once again, the press is under attack. Last Friday, the Wall Street Journal announced that China had refused to renew the press credentials of Chun Han Wong, one of the Journal’s Beijing correspondents. Wong’s sin was that he simply did his job. He had previously reported the existence of an Australian investigation into organized crime, and alleged influence-peddling that touched on one of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s cousins.

Unfortunately, efforts to muzzle the media know no borders.

As an active litigator in Malaysia and a former government prosecutor and legal counsel, I have seen the powerful and the privileged attempt to marshal the country’s legal system to avoid scrutiny. By the same measure, I have also witnessed a commitment by the judiciary to the rule of law, and a growing openness by the government to expanding press freedom.

As an outside counsel to Dow Jones and the Asian Wall Street Journal, I had the opportunity to stand up for freedom of the press, a task I embraced with zeal and gravity. One such episode was the product of government’s desire to bring the press to heel. The other was born purely out of pique and ego. In both cases, intimidation was the means and silence was the goal.

Back in the mid-1980s, the Malaysian government attempted to shutter the Asian Wall Street Journal for three months, strip its two reporters, John Peter Berthelsen and Raphael Pura, of their credentials by revoking their employment passes, which was tantamount to immediate expulsion, in retaliation for reporting on alleged ministerial corruption and possessing the temerity to write about Malaysia’s efforts to corner the tin market.

After initial setbacks in the trial, we finally prevailed in the Malaysian Supreme Court. As a result, the Journal was back on newsstands, the expulsion of the journalists voided, and their credentials restored. Further, the court punished the government, and imposed legal costs.

In the Supreme Court’s view, the reporters in question, having enjoyed a work pass, had a legitimate expectation for its renewal, and therefore its revocation devoid of due process was tantamount to a travesty of justice. As for the Malaysian government’s national-security claims, the Supreme Court rejected it as bordering on fiction.

Rather, the Supreme Court, “unable to envisage what dire consequences of catastrophic magnitude would or possibly could have ensued if the Applicant (journalist) had been accorded a right to make representations prior to the exercise of the power to cancel his employment pass.” The British, our former colonial overlords, had usefully managed to leave a legacy that made Malaysia part of the common-law tradition, of Magna Carta, and William Blackstone. Press freedom had been preserved that time, anyway.

Delivered in November 1986, the decision was reflective of the Malaysian judiciary’s Golden Era, a term ascribed to by leading jurists. After 1988, things appeared to change.

A decade later, Chandra Sri Ram, the wife of Sri Ram, who was then a sitting judge of the intermediate appellate court and ironically now the Malaysian government’s lead prosecutor in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) cases, brought the full weight and fury of Malaysia’s legal system to bear upon Murray Hiebert, a reporter for the Far Eastern Economic Review, then a Dow Jones affiliate. Hiebert had the misfortune of writing about how Ms Ram had sued her son’s school for a staggering and unprecedented 6 million ringgit (US$2.4 million) because he had been dropped from the debate team.

Sardonically, Hiebert, a Canadian, observed that “many are surprised at the speed with which the case raced throughout Malaysia’s legal labyrinth.” Apparently the Malaysian judiciary was not amused. Things got uglier, fast. Ms Ram then brought an action for contempt against Hiebert. As a result, the trial court sentenced Hiebert to three months in prison, a sentence that was cut to six weeks by an appellate court after we mounted a vigorous defense and appellate strategy.

We fought hard, but in the end Hiebert elected to serve his sentence and win his freedom. The pain of continued incarceration was not deemed to be worth a protracted battle before Malaysia’s unsympathetic courts. Sadly, the outcome represented a retreat from the hard-won freedom a decade earlier. Unlike the US or England, Malaysia continues to limit criticism of the courts, another colonial vestige that even Britain has disbanded to a large extent.

Still, green shoots of a freer press, and a greater tolerance for dissent, continue to appear. The battles fought for free expression reverberate decades later. As we learned here in Malaysia, just because reporters may get blocked, this does not mean that the news did not happen.

Muhammad Shafee Abdullah

Dr Muhammad Shafee Abdullah is a senior private legal practitioner in Malaysia. A former ambassador-at-large for human rights for Malaysia and the first Malaysian representative in the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission of Human Rights and its chairman for a full term, Shafee is currently the lead counsel defending the former prime minister of Malaysia in the 1MDB and SRC cases.

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