January 12, 2000
His Excellency Dato' Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad
Jabatan Perdana Menteri
Jalan Dato' Onn
Kuala Lumpur 50502
VIA FAX: +60-3-238-3784
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply concerned by today's arrests of Zulkifli Sulong, the editor of Harakah, the biweekly newspaper of the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), and Chia Lim Thye, the owner of the company that prints Harakah and formally holds the newspaper's publishing license.
Police charged Zulkifli and Chia with sedition for publishing a statement criticizing the government's handling of the ongoing sodomy trial of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. The statement, which also circulated over the Internet, appeared in the August 2, 1999, edition of Harakah.
Both men were released on bail but are reportedly due to appear tomorrow before a Malaysian Sessions Court, where they intend to plead not guilty. Zulkifli faces up to six months in prison if convicted. He told reporters he feared the newspaper could be suspended.
Today's arrests come shortly after the Ministry of Home Affairs warned Harakah that under the terms of its publishing license, the popular biweekly newspaper could not be sold to the general public, but only to PAS members. Harakah's circulation has grown four-fold, to about 350,000 copies, since the arrest of Anwar in September 1998. Many political observers credit Harakah for contributing to a significant improvement in PAS's performance in the November 1999 general elections.
Local journalists fear that the arrests of Zulkifli and Chia, coupled with today's arrests of two opposition party leaders on unrelated sedition charges, could signal the start of a broad crackdown against those who question the policies and practices of your administration.
In a letter sent by CPJ to Your Excellency on January 10, we expressed our concern over threats made by the Ministry of Home Affairs to shut down Harakah, as well as the pro-opposition publications Detik, Wasilah, Tamadun, and Eksklusif. As an organization of journalists committed to the protection of free expression worldwide, CPJ views the arrests of Zulkifli and Chia as assaults on the fundamental principles of press freedom.
Malaysia already enforces an onerous regime of press licensing that has fostered a timid mainstream media controlled by allies of the ruling coalition. The handful of alternative voices allowed to publish, of which Harakah is the leading representative, are a vital source of news and information. Sadly, we are forced to conclude that the recent actions against Harakah demonstrate your government's determination to keep opposition voices from reaching a broader public.
CPJ, along with most democratic governments and international press organizations, believes that journalists should never face imprisonment for what they write or publish. The prosecution of Zulkifli and Chia would send a message of intolerance that would surely discourage independent journalism in Malaysia. We therefore respectfully urge your government to drop the charges against Zulkifli and Chia immediately and end the campaign of intimidation and harassment that is currently underway against Harakah.
We thank you for your attention to this urgent matter, and await your response.
Ann K. Cooper