Soldiers guard the entrance to Chow Kit Market in Kuala Lumpur on May 6. The market is under lockdown due to an order limiting the activities of people in Malaysia as a preventive measure against the spread of Covid-19. (Photo: AFP)
Malaysian police are investigating a local journalist over her reporting for a foreign news organization about raids last week on migrant workers and asylum seekers in an area of Kuala Lumpur.
Tashny Sukumaran, a correspondent for the South China Morning Post newspaper in Hong Kong, is being investigated under Section 504 of Malaysia’s penal code over an article she wrote about the raids, which have been widely criticized by rights activists.
If convicted, the journalist could face up to two years in prison according to the law, which makes it illegal to engage in insults or provocation that could lead to a breach of the public peace.
Rights advocates have said the law and similar pieces of legislation in the Penal Code are routinely used by authorities to try and stifle critical voices by threatening them with the prospect of imprisonment.
In a sweeping crackdown last weekend, police arrested more than 700 migrants and asylum seekers including children. Numerous stateless ethnic Rohingya people who fled their homes in Myanmar after a military onslaught in Rakhine state were also taken into custody.
Inspector-General of Police Abdul Hamid Bador told the state-owned news agency Bernama that the raids were necessary to stamp out the spread of Covid-19, which was rife in certain overcrowded areas that are home to migrant workers in the city.
The police chief added that the mass detentions had been authorized to stop migrants and asylum seekers possibly infected with the coronavirus from moving elsewhere unnoticed, thereby spreading the potentially deadly disease.
Rights activists have dismissed such concerns as unfounded.
The Malaysian chapter of the rights group Amnesty International said the round-ups of people such as Rohingya refugees were “an appalling violation of human rights and the persecution of an already marginalized community.”
“Mass arrests being carried out in the middle of a pandemic are terrible enough, but reports of detainees being cramped into small vans, not provided masks, unable to practise social distancing are equally alarming,” Preethi Bhardwaj, interim executive director of Amnesty International Malaysia, said in a statement.
“During a global public health crisis, detention solely for migration-related reasons is unjustifiable. The authorities must urgently release those detained and focus on combating the Covid-19 pandemic instead of using it as an excuse to further violate the rights of vulnerable communities.”
Communications Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said in a post on Twitter that he had asked the country’s media regulator not to press charges against Sukumaran in the interest of press freedom.
In a separate official statement, however, the minister qualified the government’s stance on the freedom of the press, which, he said, must be in line with the principles of truth and justice.
The media must make sure, he argued, that it protected the public from spreading false information that could threaten the stability and harmony of the country.