Canadian journalist jailed in Malaysia

Tuesday, September 14, 1999


14 September 1999

His Excellency Dato' Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad
Prime Minister
Jabatan Perdana Menteri
Jalan Dato' Onn
Kuala Lumpur 50502 Malaysia
fax: +603 238 3784

Your Excellency,

On behalf of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), an independent organisation which defends freedom of speech worldwide, I am writing to urge you to do everything possible to overturn the jail sentence handed down to Canadian journalist Murray Hiebert on 11 September. Hiebert, a correspondent with the "Far Eastern Economic Review", was jailed after Court of Appeal President Lamin Yunus upheld a lower court's "contempt of court" conviction. He has been unable to leave your country for over two years while the appeal process dragged on in his case, having had his passport confiscated, and now he has been sent to Sungai Buloh Prison for six weeks.

We would urge you to take note that democratic countries do not jail journalists in relation to their work. In Malaysia, no journalists have been sent to prison because of their work and we are at pains to understand why Hiebert should be the first. In fact, Hiebert's lawyers say he is the first journalist in almost fifty years to be imprisoned for contempt in a Commonwealth nation. We appreciate that his sentence was reduced from three months to six weeks but we maintain that journalists should not be sent to jail for any amount of time in relation to their work.

Hiebert was first sentenced to three months in jail in September 1997 for the 23 January 1997 article "See You in Court," which covered the growing number of defamation lawsuits in Malaysia. He reported that Chandra Sri Ram, the wife of a prominent judge, brought a suit against the Kuala Lumpur International School after her son was taken off the debating team. The article mentioned that the case had been processed speedily by the courts and that the student's father, Gopal Sri Ram, was a prominent judge. Chandra then brought the contempt suit against Hiebert despite the fact that the original suit regarding her son was settled out of court.

Lawyers attending various stages of Hiebert's trial report serious irregularities in the legal proceedings. In particular, they note that evidence was not admitted to the appeals court showing that the journalist had already published a correction on 7 August 1997 in response to the charge that he had misrepresented Judge Gopal Sri Ram's role in his son's case. Furthermore, according to a lawyer observing Hiebert's appeal process, the charge of contempt was applied incorrectly. The judge wrongly based the contempt conviction in part on his finding that the article contained what he called three "baseless lies", despite the fact that information in the article were not actually lies, but either errors or different interpretations of the facts. In any case, according to law, "lies and errors" are not the basis of contempt of court.

We note that Hiebert's imprisonment came just prior to the start of the Commonwealth Law Conference in Kuala Lumpur, and that at least two Malaysian opposition politicians are boycotting the conference in protest over Hiebert's jailing. International jurists are not likely to support such a decision either.

CJFE urges Your Excellency to immediately pardon Hiebert and release him from prison. We further suggest that you review the country's laws, which in our opinion wrongly allow journalists to be prosecuted under criminal laws.

Yours Sincerely,

Kristina Stockwood

cc. Dato Abdulah Badawi
Minister of Home Affairs,
Jalan Dato' Onn,
50502 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Fax: 011-603-238-3784

Mr. Kapil Sibal, Chair
Working Group on Arbitrary Detention,
c/o Centre for Human Rights
Palais des Nations
8-14 avenue de la Paix,
1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland
Fax: 41-22-917-01-23
E-mail: [email protected]

The Hon. Jean Chr├ętien
Prime Minister
House of Commons
P.O. Box 1103
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0A6 Canada
Fax: +613 941 6900
E-mail: [email protected]

For background on the case, go to an alert dated 17 May 1999.

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