Suhakam should not run away from its statutory  responsibilities by organizing workshops on press freedom when it should be holding inquiries  into  the various complaints of infringements of press freedom and  violations of free speech

Media Statement
by Lim Kit Siang

(Penang,  Sunday)During my 80-minute meeting with  the Suhakam Chairman, Tan Sri Abu Talib Othman at the Suhakam headquarters in Kuala Lumpur last Thursday, I expressed my concern that Suhakam is organizing a workshop on press freedom in Malaysia when it should be holding inquiries into the various complaints of infringements of press freedom and violations of free speech. 

I was referring in particular to the Suhakam announcement of 24th May 2002 that it had decided to organize a workshop on press freedom in Malaysia in response to the various complaints and memoranda submitted on violations of press freedom. 

I told Abu Talib that it was a matter of concern and even consternation that Suhakam seems to regard itself as an organizer of workshops rather than as a body which had been established by statute with specific powers to inquire into complaints of violations of press freedom. 

There had been umpteenth workshops on press freedom in the country in recent years, whether organsied by journalist groups or the Bar Council,  without any appreciable improvement in press freedom. Even Suhakam last September had a seminar on the role of the media in promoting human rights. 

However, Suhakam’s function to organize workshops, which is provided under Section 4(2)(a) of the Suhakam Act to “promote awareness of human rights” cannot be allowed to overshadow or supersede its more important function and power to “inquire into complaints regarding infringements of human rights” as stated in Section (4)(1)(d) of the Act. 

Instead of a workshop on press freedom, Suhakam should be holding inquiries into the various specific complaints of violations of  press freedom which it had received in the past two years. 

Suhakam had said that  NGO representatives will be invited to its workshop on press freedom which, among other things, will examine laws and regulations that restrict press freedom, the call for the establishment of an Independent Press Council and the formulation of a Freedom  of Information Act. 

How is Suhakam going to get the broadbased and representative NGO support and co-operation  for the workshop as the leading NGOs have launched a 100-day boycott and disengagement with Suhakam  in the crisis of confidence over the credibility of the Human Rights Commission, deciding on their relations with Suhakam after the 100-day boycott? 

This was why I suggested to Abu Talib that Suhakam should  reach out to the NGOs in view of the crucial role of the NGOs and the civil society to strengthen national capacities for the promotion and protection of human rights – as without full support and co-operation from NGOs and the civil society, Suhakam will be crippled from discharging  its statutory duties to protect and promote human rights. 

In my discussion with Talib, I also discussed several outstanding  issues to illustrate my concern at Suhakam’s failure  to provide timely and/or  impartial investigation of human rights violations and recommending appropriate actions by the relevant government authorities, such as: 

1. The Kampong Medan Case  

I expressed my disagreement with the decision of  Suhakam to suspend  all further action into allegations of police inaction into the Kampong Medan racial attacks in March last year until after the disposal of the court case brought against it. 

While I do not agree with the institution of the legal proceedings against Suhakam, as the police or the government would be the more rightful party to be sued, I cannot agree with the Suhakam’s  “petty retaliation” to suspend all action on the case until the disposal of the case, for Suhakam should be more concerned about swift and just redress of human rights grievances and violations of the victims of the Kampong Medan racial attacks than about being sued – rightly or otherwise.

Suhakam is already not pro-active enough to protect human rights and it is unhealthy and undesirable to have a precedent to justify inaction.  Suhakam’s being sued is no reason or excuse for inaction or suspension on its action on the Kampong Medan racial attacks which claimed six lives and injured some hundred people. Suhakam should not allow the court case to influence or prevent  what it should statutorily be doing  with regard to Kampong Medan case -  to protect and promote human rights – and it should revoke its “suspension”  of action on the Kampong Medan case.

2. Suhakam inquiry into Sarawak Native Customary Rights (NCR) land controversy  

Abu Talib informed me that he was going through the draft report of the Suhakam inquiry into the Sarawak Native Customary Rights (NCR) land controversy, which was headed by Datuk Dr. Dr. Salleh Mohd Nor, one of the three most industrious, conscientious and committed Suhakam Commissioners in the first-term Suhakam who has been axed by not being re-appointed.  

Abu Talib’s explanation is most unsatisfactory.  On 15th May, I had asked whether the delay in the publication of the Suhakam inquiry into the Sarawak NCR land controversy was  because of the strong objections of the Sarawak state government, which wanted the Salleh draft report watered down.

In December last year, the then Deputy Chairman of the Suhakam Complaints and Inquiries Working Group, Tan Sri Anuar Zainal Abidin had announced in Kuching that a comprehensive report on a Suhakam fact-finding mission following memoranda of complaints by Sarawak natives affected by the Bakun dam project and native customary rights land (NCR) conflicts was expected to be ready in February this year after hearing and receiving  representation from the natives and the government authorities.

He said that the draft report would also be forwarded to the Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud once it was completed.

Among the complaints lodged with Suhakam and were the subject of investigations  by the Suhakam fact finding mission headed by Salleh Mohd Nor were  the resettlement of nearly 1,000 people to Sungai Asap due to the Bakun dam project; the problems faced by Penans relating to logging companies encroaching into their NCR land resulting in pollution of water supply and loss of food sources and hunting grounds left uncompensated;  the problems of the Ibans in Ulu Niah in their conflicts with oil palm companies, etc.

A week after my query, Suhakam Commissioner Prof Chiam Heng Keng, who was a member of the NCR Inquiry, said the Suhakam NCR  report  was being finalized and could be released as “early as next week” – but since then, some three weeks have passed and Abu Talib is still “going through it”!

3. Inquiry into the six ISA reformasi activists

The Harun Hashim Internal Security Act (ISA) inquiry will be the acid test whether Suhakam has retreated to a narrow restrictive interpretation of its powers or whether it stands firm and square on its statutory remit to protect and promote human rights.

The three-member Suhakam inquiry, to be headed by Suhakam Deputy Chairman Tan Sri Harun Hashim together with Prof Mohd Hamdan Adnan and Asiah Abu Samah, is  to begin a three-day hearing into the conditions of the six ISA reformasi activists currently detained at the Kamunting detention camp on Tuesday.

In my meeting with Abu Talib,  I expressed the general disappointment of the civil society at the narrowing of the scope of the Suhakam probe into the detention conditions of the six ISA reformasi activists, Mohamad Ezam Mohamad Nor, Hishamuddin Rais, Chua Tian Chang, Saari Sungib, Badrulamin Bahron and Lokman Noor Adam at the Kamunting Detention Camp when the inquiry should deal with the central issue of the human rights violations of their ISA detention.

Abu Talib held that Suhakam is bound by the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia Act 1999 which defined "human rights" as referring to the fundamental liberties enshrined in Part II of the Federal Constitution, which allowed for preventive detention laws.  

I pointed out Section 4(4) of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia Act 1999 which states that "For the purpose of this Act, regard shall be had to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the extent that it is not inconsistent with the Federal Constitution", maintaining that while preventive detention laws are provided for under the Constitution, it does not mean that Suhakam is prohibited from inquiring into the human rights violations of ISA or from discharging its overarching responsibility to promote and protect human rights in calling for the repeal of the ISA.

Otherwise, Suhakam would have acted ultra vires when it decided at an emergency meeting on April 11, 2001 that the ISA is a fundamental violation of human rights and called for the immediate release of the reformasi activists detained under the ISA, or they should be charged and tried publicly for any offences under the law.

Even the Suhakam statement of May 24 this year, compromising the earlier Suhakam stand calling for the immediate repeal of ISA by expressing the hope for its repeal "in the long term" as a direct result of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, would be ultra vires by such a narrow and restrictive interpretation of the powers and duties of Suhakam.

Abu Talib said the Harun Hashim Inquiry team was studying into all the legal aspects of this question, and I hope that the Suhakam inquiry  would not fail the acid test to stand firmly and squarely on its overarching responsibility to promote and protect human rights.

The lawyers for the reformasi six have said that the six ISA detainees have taken a stand to boycott the Harun Hashim inquiry if it is to be restricted solely into their conditions at the Kamunting Detention Centre as it will not  do justice to their  human rights violations and  will not be a bona fide investigation.  

The boycott of the Harun Hashim inquiry by the ISA reformasi six if it is confined to their detention conditions in Kamunting will be most understandable, as such a restricted inquiry is a farce and a charade, plunging Suhakam to a new depth of crisis of  confidence and credibility.  


*Lim Kit Siang - DAP National Chairman