(Petaling Jaya, Saturday): The Berita Harian has been most mischievous and irresponsible in the past three days, misusing its important press position to slant and even concoct news to misrepresent and mislead its readers about Guan Engís prison conditions, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) Fact-Finding Mission Report to Malaysia on Guan Engís case and the resolution of the IPU Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians in Geneva on 1-4 February 1999.
This is an expose fo a self-concocted Berita Harian `exposeí, which is one of the most shameful examples of unethical and irresponsible journalism in Malaysia.
On 24th February 1999, Berita Harian carried a front-page report under the headline "Penjara dakwa IPU bohong" ("Prisons accuses IPU of lying") , quoting Prisons Deputy Superintendent for Public Relations, Jamil Razif Kassim as expressing regret that IPU had "lied" in claiming that its representatives had visited the prisons in Malaysia and found that the prisoners have not been given satisfactory treatment, when IPU representatives had never visited the prisons in the country.
[Jabatan Penjara kesal dengan Kesatuan Ahli Parlimen Antarabangsa (IPU) yang berbohong kononnya wakil mereka pernah membuat lawatan ke penjara di negara ini dan mendapati banduan tidak diberikan layanan memuaskan.
[Timbalan Penguasa Perhubungan Awamnya, Jamil Razif Kassim, berkata wakil IPU tidak pernah melawat mana-mana penjara di negara ini.]
On 25th February 1999, Berita Harian in another front-page report headlined "IPU admits it makes allegation without investigation" ("IPU mengaku buat tuduhan tanpa siasat") by-lined a report by Jamhariah Jaafar. The report quoted the IPU Secretary-General, Anders Johnsson as admitting when contacted in Geneva by telephone that the IPU had made allegations about the conditions in Malaysian prisons as "cruel, inhuman and degrading" merely based on reports by certain quarters in the country.
Anders Johnson was also quoted as admitting that the IPU representatives who had visited Malaysia last year had never entered any prison in Malaysia to see for themselves the condition and treatment of prisoners.
On 26th February, 1999, Berita Harian carried an editorial "Who Defames Prisons Department" (Siapa tohmah Jabatan Penjara?").
The highlights of the Berita Harian editorial are:
In the first place, IPU never claimed that it had visited the prisons in Malaysia. The IPU Fact-Finding Mission to Malaysia from 30th November to 2nd December 1998 was not to investigate into the prison conditions in Malaysia but to deal with one specific case, the incarceration of DAP Deputy Secretary-General and MP for Kota Melaka, Lim Guan Eng.
The question, therefore, of IPU mission not visiting the prisons in the country, or having made a statement that the condition of the prisons in Malaysia are "cruel, inhuman and degrading" never arose - as the IPU mission was solely interested in the case of Guan Eng.
The three members of the IPU Mission to Malaysia did not meet Guan Eng during their visit because the Prisons Director-General, Datuk Omar Mohamad Dan refused to allow them to meet the MP for Kota Melaka without the presence of prison officials, which the Malaysian Government had earlier promised to the IPU before it sent a mission to Malaysia.
Despite the lack of co-operation from the Director-General of Prisons, the IPU mission managed to gather "important and useful information and to gain more insight into the particular circumstances surrounding this case".
Before the IPU Fact-Finding Mission finalised its report, it sent its draft report to the Director-General of Prisons for comment and corrections about Guan Engís conditions of imprisonment based on information it had gathered, but there was no comment or correction by the Director-General of Prisons to indicate that there was any mistake in the account on Guan Engís prison conditions.
For instace, the Prisons Director-General did not make a squeak of protest or opposition when the draft IPU Mission Report said that "in the light of information obtained, the delegation must note with concern that Mr. Lim Guan Engís conditions of imprisonment do not meet international standards as laid down in the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, especially as regards the provisions of Part I, Articles 11 and 19."
Based on the IPU Fact-Finding Mission Report, which was not contradicted by the Director-General of Prisons although he was given the opportunity to do so, the IPU Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians which met in Geneva earlier this month adopted a decision which, among other things, said:
"Is shocked at the reports regarding Mr. Lim Guan Engís conditions of imprisonment which, as reported, do not meet relevant international standards and amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment".
Who is to blame if the IPU Fact-Finding Mission and the IPU Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians expressed its "shock" that Guan Engís reported prison conditions "do not meet relevant international standards and amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" - when the Prisons Director-General fail to use the many opportunities that he had been given to "put the record straight"?
If the Berita Harian editor/reporter had read the IPU Fact-Finding Mission Report (which was released to the press by DAP National Vice Chairman and MP for Teluk Intan, M. Kula Segaran at a media conference on 20th February 1999 and is online on the DAP homepage), he would realise that the IPU had made it very clear that it was only interested in Guan Engís case, that it had not met Guan Eng because of the Prisons Director-General over-ruling the governmentís commitment to IPU that its fact-finding mission could meet Guan Eng without any prison official present, that IPU had only made a statement about Guan Engís prison condition and not about conditions in the countryís prisons - and the question of the IPU mission not visiting any one of the prisons in the country never arose!
Either the Berita Harian editor/reporter had not read the IPU Reports, which is a great journalistic sin over what should be most elementary for all journalists, or despite such a reading, the Berita Harian editor/reporter decided to ignore it - which is an even greater journalistic sin, involving gross dishonesty and absence of the most rudimentary ethics.
In the three-day coverage, Berita Harian wants to give the impression that it had performed a journalistic feat of exposing the IPU scandal of making a judgement on the conditions of Malaysian prisons when no IPU representative had ever visited a single prison in the country - when this is a non-story right from the beginning, as the IPU reports never made any of such claims.
On its first-day report, Berita Harian quoted the Prisons Deputy Superintendent for Public Relations, Jamil Razif Kassim as expressing regret that IPU had "lied" (berbohong) in claiming that its representatives had visited the prisons in Malaysia and found that the prisoners have not been given satisfactory treatment, when IPU representatives had never visited the prisons in the country.
When did the IPU ever claimed that its representatives had visitied the prisons in Malaysia and found that the prisoners have not been given satisfactory treatment?
Who then was lying, IPU or the Prisons PRO?
Did Jamil Razif allege that IPU had lied in claiming that IPU representatives had visited the prisons in Malaysia and found from first-hand inspection that the prison conditions were sub-standard or did Berita Harian put this allegation into his mouth, so as to serve Beritan Harianís game-plan in the next two days?
I have checked the Bernama report on Jamil Razifís statement (Bernama report attached) which did not carry any allegation by him that IPU had lied and unless Berita Harian can prove that Jamil Razif had made the allegation that IPU had lied, Berita Harian stand accused of untruthful reporting.
Of course, without the first-day report of Jamil Razif alleging IPU of "lying", there would then be no cause for the Berita Harianís second-day report, as if the intrepid Berita Harian reporter had succeeded in trapping the IPU Secretary-General into admitting that it had made "false allegations" against the prison system in Malaysia or for the screaming Berita Harian editorial on the third day.
If there is an annual award for the "worst and most dishonest and unethical journalism of the year", Berita Harianís three-day coverage of the IPUís Report on Guan Engís case would come up top.
Berita Harian should apologise for its most irresponsible and unethical journalism. It had suggested that the Prisons Director-General to take legal action to clear its name. I fully agree and this is one reason why I have instituted three RM250 million defamation suits against the Utusan Malaysia, the New Straits Times and New Sunday Times for the defamation hearings would also provide an occasion to focus national attention as to how the Malaysian prisons have failed to comply with minimum international standards for the treatment of prisoners.
However, I do not see what basis the Prisons Director-General can institute legal proceedings. If any, it is the IPU which can institute legal action against Berita Harian for falsely publishing that IPU had "lied" in its Reports.
Although the Prisons Deputy Director for Public Relations, Jamil Razif Kassim had not alleged that IPU had "lied" as reported by Berita Harian (but I am prepared to stand corrected), I hold him responsible for making misleading and false statements when he said that Guan Eng was given several privileges as compared to other prisoners, such as allowed to meet his family members face-to-face without a glass barrier and two family visits a week.
Jamil had stated two untruths: It is untrue that Guan Eng receives two family visits a week and it is also untrue that the family visits are held face-to-face without a glass barrier.
I am writing to the Chief Secretary to the Government, Tan Sri Halim Ali to demand a full investigation as to why the Prisons Public Relations Officers is giving out misleading information and downright lies and that there should be a general directive to all government department Public Relations Officers to impress on them that while opinions are free, facts are sacred.
Last month, I said that DAP will convene a meeting of political parties, NGOs and prominent Malaysians to examine and study the threat of a biased mass media to democracy and the development of a civil society in Malaysia.
In the past, electronic and printed mass media which are in the stable of ownership, management and control of the various ruling coalition parties show the true colours of their bias, spleen, total unscrupulousness and lack of the most basic journalistic principles against opposition parties and Opposition leaders only during the short general elections campaign period.
There is now a radical departure from this past practice, as there are clear signs that such bias, spleen, total unscrupulousness and lack of the most basic journalistic principles are more and more evident in certain mass media, although there are no indications yet as to when general election would be held.
Examples are the attempt to use the issue of Islamic state and to slant and misrepresent the DAPís stand on the Islamic state and the Berita Harianís irresponsible and unethical journalism which I exposed today.
This has made such a conference of political parties, NGOs and prominent Malaysians to examine and study the threat of a biased mass media to democracy and the development of a civil society in Malaysia even more urgent, and it is proposed that such a conference be convened at the end of next month.