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Malaysian media groups express support for embattled journalists' union chief

(CIJ/IFEX) - 5 January 2011 - The following is a joint statement from the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) - SEAPA associate member in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - Charter 2000-Aliran, Writers' Alliance for Media Independence, and 1 Muted Malaysia:

We are four civil society groups speaking up in support of the president of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), Hata Wahari, who is being subjected to a "domestic inquiry" for statements he has made about political interference in the newspaper "Utusan Malaysia," which also happens to be his employer.

We echo the words of NUJ general secretary V Anbalagan that Hata was speaking in his capacity as a union official and thus merely exercising his rightful duty and fulfilling his national obligation. The management of "Utusan Malaysia" is free to make a public rebuttal if it disagrees with Hata. It should not penalise Hata by subjecting him to a domestic inquiry that may result in him being fired. A domestic inquiry is a labor management relations mechanism similar to putting an employee on trial (within the company) but without benefit of legal counsel.

According to Hata, the domestic inquiry notice followed two show-cause letters from the management - on 14 October and 14 November 2010 - in response to his first statement as NUJ president on 21 September 2010. The domestic inquiry letter was dated 23 December 2010, and received on 27 December.

Hata has been speaking out since he was elected to the top union position in September 2010, and appears to be implementing his election manifesto, which includes engaging in efforts to abolish the draconian Printing Presses and Publications Act as well as promoting ethical reporting on religious and race issues. He also aimed to monitor newspapers that contravene journalistic ethics in this regard ( ). His first statement took to task senior editors of the much-criticised "Utusan Malaysia" for failing to advocate media freedom in their quest to serve the agenda of their political masters the UMNO. His new year statement cited racist rhetoric in the same paper as the reason for the daily's declining sales, and urged the authorities to act against the editors for inciting racial hatred.

We note that this is the first time in a long while since an NUJ leader has spoken up against unethical media practices, which he correctly blamed on the lack of media independence due to political interference and restrictive laws.

We believe that Hata was not only speaking up for the integrity of the profession, but for the right of all Malaysians to have a media that will put the people as their first priority, and truth as their first obligation, which means allowing as many different perspectives as possible so that the people can judge and decide for themselves what is the truth.

We view any attempt to sack the union president for expressing his opinion in defence of journalistic integrity as a serious attack on freedom of expression and media freedom.

We call on all journalists, unionised or not, to stand behind Hata and urge for the domestic inquiry, rescheduled to 17 January, to be called off.

Similarly, all Malaysians who want a free media must now speak up and stand in line together with the journalists.

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