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Journalist imprisoned for reporting on student's lawsuit

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    NMU         MALAYSIA         Press at Home & Abroad         Sep 20, 1999    

Journalist imprisoned for reporting on student’s lawsuit

  • A Canadian reporter’s story noting a judge’s son’s case moved rather quickly through the court system “repeatedly scandalized the courts and our judiciary,” a Malaysian appellate court found.

An appellate court in Malaysia upheld in mid-September the conviction of the chief correspondent for a Dow Jones business magazine, making him the first reporter in the recent history of the country to be jailed for writing a story about a court case, The Wall Street Journal reported recently.

Murray Hiebert, a Canadian journalist who is the chief correspondent for “Far Eastern Economic Review” — a weekly magazine based in Hong Kong — is involved in a what the Journal called a highly unusual case because reporters in the Commonwealth country generally are fined for revealing classified information, but never jailed.

Journalism organizations worldwide have rallied behind Hiebert, as have the Canadian and United States governments.

“Putting a journalist in jail for doing his job undermines the press freedoms that play such a critical role in building a democratic society,” President Clinton said in a statement issued through his press secretary. “We will continue to monitor developments in this case closely.”

In 1997, Hiebert, 50, was found guilty of contempt for writing about Malaysia’s increasingly litigious society and the multimillion dollar lawsuits that had been filed. The lead story was about a lawsuit filed by the mother of a 17-year-old boy who sought $1.6 million from a school for having removed the boy from the debate team. The boy’s father is a powerful appeals court judge.

Though the case was settled out of court, a lawyer quoted in Hiebert’s story noted with surprise that the case moved rather quickly through the court system.

High Court Judge Low Hop Bing, in sentencing Hiebert, said his story “repeatedly scandalized the courts and our judiciary,” the Journal reported. “For far too long there appears to be unabated contemptuous attacks by and through the media on our Judiciary. It is time that our Judiciary shows its abhorrence to such contemptuous conduct,” Bing said, according to the Journal.

Hiebert initially was sentenced to three months in jail. On appeal, the court upheld the conviction but reduced his jail time to six weeks.

Anna K. Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a letter to the country’s prime minister that no journalist should be jailed for writing a story. CPJ urged officials to pardon Hiebert, and asked the prime minister to order an investigation into Hiebert’s prosecution “to determine whether there was any miscarriage of justice” and move to eliminate any provision in Malaysia’s legal code that allows reporters to be jailed for gathering and reporting the news.

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© 1999 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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