Gopal Sri Ram, see you in court

Attorney-General Mohamed Apandi Ali should lodge a police report for criminal defamation following two articles posted by Raja Petra Kamarudin, Gopal Sri Ram said. Apandi could also file a defamation suit against the blogger. “That course of filing a suit is always open to him. However, given the nature of the comments and the seriousness of the allegation, this is a case of criminal defamation.”


Raja Petra Kamarudin

Contempt case signals limits of free speech about Malaysia’s judiciary

(The Irish Times, 11 October 1999) – This morning a tall, bespectacled man will emerge from a prison outside Kuala Lumpur after serving four weeks of a six-week sentence for scandalising the Malaysian courts. Mr Murray Hiebert (pic above), a Canadian citizen, will probably leave Malaysia for home on the first available flight.

The local bureau chief of the Far Eastern Economic Review, he is the first journalist to have been jailed for contempt in Malaysia – or any British Commonwealth member state – in 50 years.

The case has sent a strong signal to lawyers and journalists about the limits to what can be said about Malaysia’s judiciary. It has also focused international attention on the reputation of the former British colony’s legal system, already battered by the bizarre case of the former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, jailed after being charged with sex crimes and corruption.

Mr Hiebert (50), from Steinbach, Manitoba, was sentenced for scandalising the court in a January 1997 article about litigation in Malaysia, which he illustrated with a story concerning a school debating team. Headed “See You in Court” it detailed a case brought by Ms Chandra Sri Ram, wife of a court of appeals judge, on behalf of her son, Govind (17), a student at the International School in Kuala Lumpur who had been dropped from the school debating team. She sought damages of RM6 million, claiming unlawful discrimination against her son.

Lord and master over everything as far as the eye can see

The journalist wrote that to the surprise of many, the case sped through Malaysia’s “legal labyrinth”, coming to court in less than seven months. The suit was settled out of court but Ms Chandra had sworn an affidavit urging that Mr Hiebert be jailed for contempt of court.

Eight months later, Justice Low Hop Bing sentenced Mr Hiebert to three months in prison and awarded costs to Ms Chandra.

The judge said it was a “baseless, unwarranted and unsubstantiated untruth” to suggest the court had fast-tracked the case because it was brought by the wife of a prominent judge. He maintained the reporter wrote the article solely to misinform the public and intimidate the court, and depicted the plaintiff as an “ungrateful boy”. The judge also complained that it was a blatant lie to refer in the article to “a separate 12-page letter to the court” from Govind’s father, Mr Gopal Sri Ram.

The letter was in fact written to the school and only exhibited to the court, but an editor in Hong Kong deleted the word “exhibited”, for which the Far Eastern Economic Review apologised.

Imposing sentence, the judge said it was to show the judiciary’s abhorrence for “unabated contemptuous attacks” on it by and through the media. Mr Hiebert was released on appeal but his passport was frozen. Four weeks ago, the appeals court ruled he had damaged the integrity and dignity of the High Court but reduced the sentence to six weeks.

He went to jail the same day carrying his backpack with four books and a toothbrush.

Mohtar Abdullah, the AG at that time, got a stroke and died in 2003 after being in a coma for a year

Malaysia inherited the arcane offence of scandalising the court from Britain, which used it in the past to protect colonial judges from criticism. It is still the law in Britain, though not in other advanced legal systems, as the Review’s sister publication, the Wall Street Journal, pointed out in an editorial on Mr Hiebert’s “brutal treatment”.

In the US, for example, the Supreme Court ruled in 1941 that it was incompatible with free speech, and that under the principle of due process, no judge could be a judge in his own cause.

The Hiebert case may not be the last in Malaysia. The Attorney-General, Mr Mohtar Abdullah, has warned that anyone who criticised him for “political” or “selective” decisions faces “scandalisation” charges.

Tommy Thomas used confidential banking secrets to oust Selangor Menteri Besar Khalid Ibrahim

Nor is it the first. Mr Tommy Thomas, secretary of the Malaysian Bar Council, was sued for defamation after criticising the Malaysian legal system in a British magazine. After his insurers insisted that he settle and apologise, Mr Thomas issued a statement saying this was decided “despite my express objections”, and he was promptly hauled up before a judge and given six months for scandalising the court.

Mr Zainur Zakaria, defence counsel for Anwar Ibrahim, was given three months for refusing to apologise for pressing charges on his client’s instructions against two prosecutors for allegedly manufacturing evidence. Both lawyers are appealing.

Then there is the case of an opposition MP, Mr Lim Guan Eng, who was jailed for 18 months after he charged the courts with stigmatising a teenager who claimed she was raped by a senior government official.