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Journalist found guilty of "tarnishing newspaper's image"

(CIJ/IFEX) - 15 April 2011 - The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) Malaysia regrets the guilty verdict delivered on 14 April 2011 against National Union of Journalists (NUJ) Malaysia president, Mohamed Ha'ta Wahari, for allegedly tarnishing his employers' image and revealing their "secrets".

Ha'ta is a senior journalist with Malay daily "Utusan Malaysia", published by Utusan Melayu (M) Bhd. In a 20 September 2010 statement, he criticised the daily's top editors for forgoing media freedom and acceding editorial control to the paper's political owner, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which is the dominant party in the federal government.

He was found guilty on eight charges laid out against him by his employer. The charges stemmed from reports of his statement published in "Malaysiakini", "The Malaysian Insider", "The Sun" and "Merdeka Review" regarding the dismal financial and ethical performances of "Utusan Malaysia".

Ha'ta has been suspended since 11 January pending the outcome of the domestic inquiry initiated on 6 January and may be sacked. The top management will decide the "penalty" in a fortnight.

Coverage of this issue in the local mainstream media has been conspicuously lacking since they have always been reluctant to report on issues related to their own freedom, bound as they are by the repressive Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 and their political owners.

CIJ is therefore asking for international intervention to prevent this serious blow to press freedom in Malaysia.
Ha'ta is the first NUJ president in more than a decade who has made an unequivocal stand for press freedom. He is apparently being punished now for his boldness in calling for the "Utusan Malaysia" chief editor to take responsibility for the many complaints about the daily which has been constantly criticised by media observers for its unethical and incendiary reporting that has overtly racist tones.

Fair comment is allowed as part of the constitutional right to freedom of expression. Yet, the fact that punitive action can be taken against a journalist union leader for criticising the lack of the very freedom that is foundational to the work of journalists speaks volumes of the state of press freedom in Malaysia.


RECOMMENDED ACTION:

Send appeals to the "Utusan Malaysia" management:
• asking them to refrain from taking any action against Ha'ta, respecting the right of the journalist union leader, and any other journalist for that matter, to freely comment on the state of media freedom and issues that affect their livelihood and profession;
• stressing that, taking any action against the journalist union leader whose "crime" had only been to speak for press freedom would not be in keeping with Prime Minister Najib Razak's progressive message three days after he assumed his post in April 2008, envisioning a freer media that would "hold the government and public officials accountable" and "report without fear and favour";
• reminding them that Article 10 of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia guarantees freedom of expression of all citizens, and a journalist is no exception to the rule; and
• noting that Malaysia's press freedom ranking has been steadily declining over the past years, placing it at the 141th position out of 178 countries, according to a 2010 index by Reporters Without Borders.


APPEALS TO:

Tan Sri Mohamed Hashim Ahmad Makaruddin
Executive Chairperson
Kumpulan Utusan
46M, Jalan Lima
Off Jalan Chan Sow Lin
55200 Kuala Lumpur
Fax: 603-9222 7876
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