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Malaysian groups welcome apology, drop defamation suit against newspaper

The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (BERSIH 2.0), the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), Merdeka Center and Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM) are pleased to see that the New Straits Times (NST) has published an apology over an article that appeared on its front page on 21 September 2012. NST acknowledged that the article, entitled "Plot to destabilize govt", contained accusations that were "false and without foundation", with "no proof whatsoever to substantiate any of the said allegations" and "insufficient verification of the information used to support the said allegations." NST also stated in the apology that the article "ought not to have been published."

The half-page apology on 15 November 2013, published on page three, was part of a settlement with NST to end our defamation suit against its publisher and the author of the original article. In addition, the publisher agreed to pay costs amounting to RM120,000 (approximately USD 37,441). No damages were paid.

The decision to pursue a legal challenge was taken after serious discussions and deliberation by all the organisations concerned. As civil society organisations, we recognize the importance of media freedom and the role of the press in supporting free and open debate regarding matters of public interest.

This freedom includes outing wrongdoings and airing criticism of individuals and organisations. These are and should be part and parcel of journalistic work. Even where we may disagree with the criticisms in themselves, protecting the right to freedom of expression is paramount in a democratic society.

Whether the publication and the journalist concerned lived up to their ethical and professional responsibilities is, on our part, the key contention here. The freedom to publish must be guided by the core principles of journalism, which include providing reports that are true, comprehensive and proportional, and backed by facts that have been verified.

We contend that NST and the journalist who wrote the article failed in their responsibility to discharge their responsibilities. The 2012 article and subsequent follow-up articles accused us of being traitors to Malaysia and of conspiring with foreign elements to destabilise the country politically and economically. NST alleged that we received RM20 million (approximately USD6.3 million) from global funders to act as their proxies toward this end. Given the grave nature of these allegations and the absolute absence of verification of facts with the parties concerned, we had to take the legal route as a legitimate action to protect our reputation and our work against false and defamatory statements.

The report was published amidst sustained harassment by the Malaysian State against civil society organisations in the lead-up to the 13th General Election. The NST report also named three others in addition to the four plaintiffs in the defamation suit: Lawyers for Liberty, the Southeast Asian Centre for E-Media (SEACEM), and Liberal Banter Sdn Bhd. We see the offending article as an attempt to distract public attention from serious issues of corruption and abuse of power, and the people's demand for greater democracy, human rights and free and fair elections.

The suit and terms of settlement is premised on promoting accurate reporting and making the New Straits Times, an established English language daily in Malaysia, accountable for its journalistic practice. In the last few years there has been a number of high-profile defamation cases against the media. The sad political reality of Malaysia is such that a defamation suit has proven to be the only effective method to hold its media accountable.

This case exemplifies the fact that promoting democratic values remains a trying process in Malaysia. While we had won a skirmish, the rest of the endeavour remains to be concluded.

This statement was released on 15 November 2013 by:

Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ)
Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (BERSIH 2.0)
Merdeka Center
Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM)

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