Suhakam should focus on its “E” or “E-“ performance on press freedom in the past two years to give top priority to freedom of speech, expression and the press  in the coming 12 months

Media Statement 
by Lim Kit Siang

(Penang,  Saturday): At Suhakam yesterday during the handing over of the memorandum by Inisiatif Wartawan (Journalists’ Initiative) on freedom of the press in the country and calling for the repeal of the Printing Presses and Publications Act, the spokesman for alternative media, Ahmad Lufti Othman expressed disappointment with Suhakam for failing to work towards repealing restrictive press laws. 

He expressed strong disagreement to the “B++” grading given by the former Suhakam Chairman Tan Sri Musa Hitam for the performance of Suhakam for its first two years and my grading of “C+”, saying that he would rate Suhakam an “E” as there had not been one statement by Suhakam to protect press freedom. 

I fully agree with Lufti and would go even further to give Suhakam an “E-“ as far as its performance on the specific issue of freedom of speech, expression and the press is concerned.  This was why in my media statement yesterday proposing that Suhakam set up a fifth working group on Press Freedom, I said: “One human rights area which had been sorely neglected by  Suhakam in its first two-year term under the chairmanship of Tan Sri Musa Hitam was on the freedom of speech, expression and the press.

My grading of “C+” for Suhakam’s performance in its first two years is  largely influenced by the two Suhakam reports, the 32-page  report on freedom of assembly and the  66-page inquiry  report  on the November 5, 2000 Kesas Highway Incident, both made public in August last year.

The very fact that the two  most industrious, conscientious and committed Suhakam Commissioners responsible for one or both the reports, Tan Sri Anuar Zainal Abidin and   Mehrun Siraj, had  been dropped from re-appointment is clear and disturbing evidence that the government does not want Suhakam to muster even a “pass” grading for its performance of its statutory duties to promote and protect human rights in the country.

In the circumstances, Suhakam should focus on its “E” or “E-“ performance on press freedom in the past two years to give top priority to freedom of speech, expression and the press  in the coming 12 months. 

It is most regrettable that the new Suhakam Chairman, Tan Sri Abu Talib Othman was not personally present yesterday to accept the memorandum signed by over a thousand Malaysian journalists on press freedom, when it is addressed directly to him, raising the question whether he would be the greatest obstacle to Suhakam to give priority to improve on its “E” or “E-“ performance on freedom of speech, expression and the press in the next 12 months. 

Prof Mohd Hamdan Adnan, the sole  Suhakam Commissioner present to accept the journalists’ memorandum,  had proposed the setting up of a special joint committee comprising Suhakam and media representatives to monitor press freedom in the country on a regular instead of an ad hoc basis and to promote press freedom. 

This is a commendable proposal, considering that Suhakam had even failed to monitor press freedom on an ad hoc basis in the past two years, provided it receives the full endorsement by  the Suhakam Commissioners so that the press freedom monitoring committee  is regarded as  an integral part of Suhakam’s statutory duties to “promote and protect” human rights and its findings and recommendations receive the full imprimatur of Suhakam. 

Hamdan should present a formal proposal for the establishment of such a press freedom monitoring committee for formal endorsement of the Suhakam commissioners at its next meeting on May 20, so that such a body could be established and become operational within a month in view of the urgency of the matter as well as the long dilatoriness of Suhakam to address the problem faced by the “mother of all freedoms” in Malaysia.

The urgency to establish such a press freedom monitoring committee is  borne out by the fact that after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, there had been an avalanche of brazen and blatant violations of press freedom in  Malaysia, with  numerous instances in the past month alone, such as the blackout  in the mainstream electronic and English/Malay print media  of news of  the anniversary hunger strike by the six reformasi activists detained under the Internal Security Act and the widespread criticisms and protests over the appointment of former Attorney-General Tan Sri Abu Talib Othman as the new Suhakam Chairman and the other  new Suhakam appointments; the distortions of news reports in the mainstream media of the peaceful May Day gathering of workers  at the KLCC and censorship of news of police high-handedness and brutality; and the continued abuses of state radio and television against the Opposition treating state assets as private properties of the ruling parties. 

If Hamdan cannot get the Suhakam Commissioners to approve the establishment of a joint press freedom monitoring committee comprising Suhakam and media representatives, then the least the Suhakam Commissioners should decide on May 20 is to form a fifth working group on press freedom  to arrest the alarming erosion of the fundamental right of free speech, expression and the press in the country. 


*Lim Kit Siang - DAP National Chairman