September 25, 2001
His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah
State of Brunei Darussalam
Office of the Sultan
Bandar Seri Begawan 1000
Via facsimile: 673-2-244-150
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is alarmed by news that your government is poised to enact sweeping amendments to existing press laws, an action that will severely curtail freedom of information in Brunei by imposing strict licensing requirements on newspapers and threatening journalists with jail terms for publishing “false news” and other offenses.
The law will go into effect on October 1 unless Your Majesty blocks its implementation, CPJ sources say.
The new law, the Local Newspapers (Amendment) Order 2001, will require newspapers to apply to the minister of home affairs for annual publishing permits. The minister will have sole discretionary power to grant permits, which will not be subject to appeal or judicial review. In addition, the new law grants the government absolute power to bar the distribution of foreign periodicals in Brunei.
The law, which the government has already officially published, requires newspapers applying for permits to deposit B$100,000 ($US 57,700) in cash with the government. Anyone who publishes without a license is liable to a fine of up to B$40,000 ($US 23,100) or three years in jail.
Other provisions allow the minister of home affairs to charge journalists with publishing malicious reports or false news, a crime punishable by a fine of B$40,000, three months in jail, or both. The law also requires individuals who are not Bruneian citizens or permanent residents to obtain prior approval from the Office of the Prime Minister before working in the press.
The majority of the staff at Brunei’s two English-language dailies, the Borneo Bulletin and the News Express, are foreigners. If enacted, the law could threaten the survival of these newspapers.
As an organization of journalists dedicated to the protection of press freedom worldwide, CPJ believes this new law is a substantial step backward for the press in Brunei. Hitherto, Bruneian newspapers have been able publish relatively freely, and journalists have not had reason to fear imprisonment for their work.
As an absolute monarchy, Brunei allows its citizens few of the rights associated with representative democracy. However, the rights enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights apply to all people, regardless of the form of government under which they live.
Article 19 of the declaration guarantees freedom of the press. This right is particularly vital in Brunei, where the local media’s freedom to criticize the government serves as a check on official excesses.
We believe that a free press is the cornerstone of any responsible society. Licensing newspapers and threatening journalists with imprisonment violates international standards of human rights and free expression. If allowed to stand, this new law will severely limit the free flow of information in Brunei and will serve as a negative example to the rest of Southeast Asia.
We respectfully urge Your Majesty to set aside this regressive legislation so that Brunei’s press can work freely.
Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We await your reply.
Ann K. Cooper