PEN Malaysia is deeply concerned by the selective targeting of Malaysian journalist Tashny Sukumaran by the authorities for her report in the South China Morning Post on 1 May 2020 headlined Coronavirus: Hundreds arrested as Malaysia cracks down on migrants in COVID-19 red zones.
On 2 May 2020, she received a telephone call from the Royal Malaysian Police summoning her to Malaysian Police Headquarters on Wednesday 6 May 2020. A police report had been filed stating that she was to be investigated under Section 504 of the Penal Code and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act for her reporting on an immigration raid in downtown Kuala Lumpur. Sukumaran’s article stated that women and children as young as four years were being detained, handcuffed and sent to immigration detention centres.
Sukumaran went to the COVID-19 red zone on 1 May 2020 and spoke to policemen, reporters, and workers who were outside the area. She then posted updates to Twitter and filed the story for the South China Morning Post. Other local media also carried the story but no action has been taken against them. The story has since been picked up and carried in the press worldwide. Section 504 of the Penal Code carries a penalty of up to two years imprisonment for an “intentional insult with intent to provoke a breach of the peace.” Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act imposes a penalty of up to one year imprisonment for “improper use of network facilities or network service.”
Pro tem President of PEN Malaysia, Bernice Chauly, said “The targeting and harassment of a journalist is a violation of press freedom. We call on the Malaysian police and government to allow journalists to do their jobs without fear of harassment, however controversial the story. Journalists must be able to report truths during this unprecedented crisis and this action is seen as a clear abuse of power from the authorities. PEN Malaysia is very concerned as to the treatment of migrants and refugees during this crisis and we urge the Malaysian authorities to respect human rights in all instances.”
Salil Tripathi, PEN International Writers in Prison Committee Chair urged the Malaysian authorities to drop all investigations and charges against Tashny Sukumaran. He added, “this comes at a time when politicians and commentators in Malaysia have been using inflammatory rhetoric against immigrant communities, singling them out for the spread of COVID-19, a pandemic that affects everyone and has no single source. Sukumaran has been reporting on the climate of fear and intimidation, and she is being harassed now for performing her duty. The authorities surely have better priorities than attacking messengers around World Press Freedom Day.”
PEN International and PEN Malaysia will continue to monitor developments closely.