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Rights groups slam detention of Al Jazeera journalists in Malaysia

(CMFR/IFEX) - In this joint statement, three media freedom groups condemn the detention of three journalists in Malaysia and call for greater transparency.

We, the undersigned organizations which advocate for media freedom and responsibility in South-East Asia, regret the unnecessary detention and interrogation of three Al Jazeera journalists who were reporting an armed standoff near Lahad Datu, Sabah, on 20 February 2013.

The journalists arrived in Sabah on 19 February to report the "standoff" between an armed group calling itself the "Royal Sulu Sultanate Army" and the Malaysian authorities which started on 14 February.

The Al Jazeera news crew, comprised of Senior Asia correspondent Steve Chao, producer Jamela Alindogan and cameraperson Mark Giddens, were under the detention of Malaysian authorities for at least six hours, during which they were intercepted at sea off Tanjung Labian village, escorted to a local police station, transferred to another police station 30 minutes' drive away while under armed escort, and questioned by the Malaysian Special Branch, before being released.

According to a statement issued by Al Jazeera on 22 February and eyewitness accounts, the three were questioned for 30 minutes to 2 1/2 hours each, sometimes together but also separately. Alindogan, a Filipina attached to the Al Jazeera English Network office in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, was questioned the longest at 2 1/2 hours, and was accused several times of working for the "Royal Sulu Sultanate Army", despite showing the authorities her employee ID.

When asked during the detention, the Malaysian authorities said the security zone around the standoff area was off-limit to civilians and media to avoid "disrupt(ing) political negotiations" with the "Royal Sulu Sultanate Army" and that this was a "sensitive political situation". The Malaysian authorities also said they were not allowed to specify the boundaries of the "no-go security zone" but acknowledged that when intercepted, the boat with the journalists on board was far from the "no-go security zone" and that the journalists had not broken any laws.

The journalists were treated politely throughout the whole detention period. However, the interrogating officers were not in uniform and when asked, declined to provide their full names or rank. Chao, Alindogan and Giddens, as journalists attached to international media organizations, are equipped and trained to provide coverage during wars, standoffs, riots, uprisings and other hostile environments.

The Centre for Independent Journalism in Malaysia, Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility in the Phillipines, with the Southeast Asian Press Alliance secretariat based in Bangkok (Thailand), understand the national security concerns as a result of this armed "standoff". However, we find the length of detention of the three journalists unnecessarily long and the line of questioning on Alindogan to be unwarranted. We find the secrecy surrounding the identity of the interrogating officers to be unnecessary given that the ones being questioned were not criminal suspects but journalists on duty and identifiable as such.

In addition, we view the vague restrictions imposed on journalists covering the Lahad Datu "political negotiation/standoff" as an attempt at limiting journalists' access at providing accurate, timely and fair coverage of a public interest security issue, especially given the looming elections in Malaysia. Given the impact on diplomatic relations between the Philippines and Malaysia, it is even more important for the media to have adequate and safe access to be able to report on the situation accurately.

In view of the above, we urge the Malaysian authorities to take these measures in the short-term:

1. Make public the boundaries of the "no-go security zone" in the affected area to ensure civilians and media do not endanger their lives by breaching the limits.

2. Hold periodic press conferences to update the media on the "political negotiations" which are taking place to ensure media (and therefore public) official access to information around this public interest issue. This move will also allay the fear and uncertainty among people in the area and address the rumors abound in Malaysia regarding the “political negotiations/standoff” in Lahad Datu.

In addition, as a medium-term measure, we urge the setting up of a committee comprised of the authorities, journalists, editors, journalists' union, media advocacy groups, human rights organizations and other civil society groups, to draw up a "standard operating procedure" on how security authorities should deal with the media during conflict situations, using UNESCO guidelines as the benchmark. This initiative must be led by the Home Minister to show there is the political will to stop future infringements on journalists on duty during conflict/armed situations.

The Malaysian authorities must show that they respect and understand the important role the media play during these important events.

Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility
Centre for Independent Journalism - Malaysia
Southeast Asian Press Alliance
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