Commonwealth: CPJ protests conditions in Sierra Leone, Malaysia

May 3, 2000

The Rt. Hon. Donald McKinnon
Commonwealth Secretary-General
The Commonwealth Secretariat
Marlborough House
Pall Mall, London
United Kingdom

VIA FAX: +44.20.7839.9081

Dear Mr. McKinnon,

On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is writing to express its concerns about press freedom violations in Malaysia and Sierra Leone, which have been Commonwealth member states since 1957 and 1961, respectively. We would like to draw your attention to the fact that the leaders of these Commonwealth countries rank among CPJ’s “10 worst enemies of the press” for 2000.

Last year, Sierra Leone became the most dangerous country in the world for journalists, with a total of 10 journalists killed in the line of duty. Throughout the country’s eight-year civil war, rebel leader Foday Sankoh and his Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels viewed journalists as enemies. When RUF forces invaded the capital Freetown in January 1999, rebels executed at least eight journalists, some along with their families. The offices of several news organizations were also destroyed.

Sierra Leone’s elected government has also repeatedly infringed on journalists’ rights to reports the news. Of the ten journalists killed in Sierra Leone last year, one died after being denied medical treatment while in government custody. In August 1999, the authorities tabled a new bill to regulate print media, which contained a proposal for a three-member media council, appointed by the president, with powers to suspend or revoke media licenses as well as impose heavy fines for alleged “press crimes.”

In Malaysia, the draconian Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984, which requires all publications to obtain licenses that can be revoked at will by the Minister for Home Affairs, remains a major obstacle to the full exercise of freedom of expression and the press. The minister’s decisions to ban newspapers are final, and there is no judicial review.

This anti-media bill is often used by the dominant United Malay National Organization (UMNO) of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to suppress dissenting views. For Malaysian readers of the mainstream press, the result is a daily diet of self-censored news. UMNO and its allies in the ruling Barisan National coalition directly own or control all major newspapers, radio and television stations, making it virtually impossible for alternative voices to reach the public.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is also one of CPJ’s “ten worst enemies of the press” as his government continues to display total contempt for Malaysia’s small opposition media. Five newspapers were threatened with closure last year. The most popular of these, Harakah, was restricted to publishing only twice monthly-and its editor and publisher were arrested on sedition charges. Recently, Malaysian authorities warned that they “may have to be given the right to enforce regulations on the contents of the Internet.”

While 1999 marked a milestone in Commonwealth history as the organization turned 50, it was one the gloomiest years for freedom of expression and the press, two of the most vital benchmarks of democracy. CPJ urges you to consider the press freedom records of Commonwealth member states in determining whether a particular country should remain a member in good standing. We also urge you to ensure that the 1971 Singapore Declaration of Principles and the 1991 Harare Declaration, which both emphasize the inviolability of press freedom, are upheld and honored by all Commonwealth member states.

We await your comments on this important matter.


Ann K. Cooper
Executive Director