Bangkok, Thailand, September 11, 1999 — The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) deplores today’s decision by the Malaysian Court of Appeal to imprison Far Eastern Economic Review correspondent Murray Hiebert for contempt of court.
Hiebert became the first reporter in Malaysia ever sent to prison for offenses related to his work when the three-judge panel upheld an earlier conviction. The court reduced his sentence from three months to six weeks when it handed down the decision. Hiebert was then taken to Sungai Buloh Prison to begin serving his term.
“As a matter of principle and international practice, we believe no reporter should ever go to jail for what he or she writes,” said CPJ’s Asia consultant A. Lin Neumann, who is based in Bangkok. “Sending Murray Hiebert to jail is an outrage.”
Hiebert, a Canadian citizen, is the first journalist in almost fifty years to be imprisoned for contempt in a Commonwealth nation, according to his lawyers.
The veteran journalist’s life has already been disrupted by the case for over two years. In September 1997 Hiebert was sentenced to three months in jail for the January 23, 1997, article “See You in Court,” which discussed the growing number of lawsuits filed in Malaysia. One suit highlighted in the piece was brought by Chandra Sri Ram, the wife of a leading Malaysian judge, against the Kuala Lumpur International School after it booted her son off the debating team.
The article stated that the case had moved rapidly through the court system and mentioned that the student’s father, Gopal Sri Ram, was a prominent judge. Even though the original suit was settled out of court, Chandra later filed a contempt case against Hiebert.
Upon his conviction and pending the appeal of the original sentence, the Malaysian court seized Hiebert’s passport. He has been unable to leave Malaysia since that time.
CPJ believes that the imprisonment of a journalist for his writing constitutes a clear violation of press freedom and has a chilling effect on other journalists who may write on sensitive subjects in Malaysia. Too often criminal sanctions are used by authoritarian governments to muzzle the press and instill fear in those who attempt to exercise their right of free expression.
It is particularly ironic that the court imprisoned Hiebert just two days before the start of the Commonwealth Law Conference, which will bring hundreds of jurists to Kuala Lumpur.
CPJ calls on Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to pardon Hiebert and ensure his immediate release from prison. The Malaysian authorities should also launch a full and thorough investigation into Hiebert’s prosecution. CPJ further urges the Malaysian government to revise its harsh legal code to eliminate penalties that threaten journalists with imprisonment for what they write.
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