Malaysian police investigate reporter who covered Covid-19 arrests

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Malaysian authorities to drop all charges against a reporter who is facing a possible two-year jail sentence on a charge of breaching the peace for covering the mass arrests of migrant workers as part of the country’s efforts to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

Tashny Sukumaran, the Kuala Lumpur correspondent of the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, has been ordered to report for questioning this morning at police headquarters in the Kuala Lumpur district of Bukit Aman.

She is being investigated under Section 504 of the Penal Code (for “intentional insult with intent to provoke a breach of the peace”) and under Section 233 of the 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act (for “improper use of network facilities or network service”).

The investigation was prompted by a story in the newspaper on the evening of 1 May, co-signed by Sukumaran and Hong Kong-based reporter Bhavan Jaipragas, about that day’s arrests of hundreds of migrant workers in Kuala Lumpur’s so-called Covid-19 “red zones” where the infection rate is said to be high. The raids and arrests came just hours after the health ministry told undocumented migrants that they had “nothing to fear” if they came forward to be tested for the coronavirus.

The police phoned Sukumaran the next day to tell her she was being investigated in connection with the article. 

“We call on prosecutors to immediately drop the absurd charges against Tashny Sukumaran,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “Malaysia rose more than any other country in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index, mainly thanks to a sharp improvement in the climate of censorship and self-censorship. But Tashny Sukumaran’s case serves as a reminder that Malaysia could fall again in the Index if the government does not quickly amend the draconian laws to which the press are exposed.”

The improvement in the environment for reporters was largely due to a change of government through the polls two years ago, the first in the history of Malaysia’s democracy.

But an arsenal of draconian laws for suppressing media freedom is still available to the executive. They include the 1948 Sedition Act, the 1972 Official Secrets Act, the 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Act and the 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act. They give the authorities strict control over publication licences and allow them to sentence  journalists to up to 20 years in prison on sedition charges.

Malaysia is ranked 101st out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index, 22 places higher than in 2019.

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Updated on 06.05.2020