"NST did not get our side of the story!"

Malaysiakini, Suaram and several other NGOs have come out with all guns blazing after an article by the New Straits Times on Friday linked them to a plot to destabilise the Malaysian government.

“No one called us to get our side of the story,” was the main reaction to the NST's front-page report.

Bersih co-chairperson S. Ambiga, whose movement - according to the report - allegedly received RM4.6mil in funding, confirmed she was not contacted to respond to the allegations made in the article.

“It is preposterous, what they are alleging.  If asking for free and fair elections is an attempt to destabilise the government, then it is clear they are admitting that the elections are not free and fair,” she told Yahoo! Malaysia.

Ambiga added that Bersih only received around RM90,000 and not millions, as alleged in the report.

"That money was used last year for two specific projects and Bersih is now funded entirely by Malaysians," she said.

The NST article linked a US-based organisation, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), to anti-government protests in the Middle East and Russia and quoted unnamed sources as saying the NED had channelled close to RM20 million to several non-governmental organisations (NGOs), organisations and companies in Malaysia.

It specifically named Malaysiakini, Suaram and Bersih as receiving funding of close to RM6.5mil altogether and added another category of 'Others' which it claimed received over RM13.3mil in support.

Checks on the NED website revealed that recipients of its funding included NGOs and organisations like Lawyers for Liberty, Liberal Banter Sdn Bhd, Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research, Southeast Asia Centre for E-Media (Seacem), Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) and the Centre for Independent Journalism.

In an email to Yahoo! Malaysia, the Centre for Independent Journalism called the allegation a 'serious charge' and demanded that NST show evidence to back their claim.

It further clarified that it received a grant from NED a few years ago in response to a grant proposal it submitted.

"The Malaysian government receives loans from foreign countries and international development banks. It also receives funds from foreign foundations/funding agencies for development projects in Malaysia.

"It is not inherently wrong to receive foreign funding, it is whether you have the ability to dictate the terms and reference of your organisation without outside interference.

"Any investigation into the conduct of these civil society organisations should be driven by professional standards and not be politically-motivated," it added.

Lawyers for Liberty advisor Eric Paulsen slammed the report, calling it part of a smear campaign, “putting forward half-truth and lies.”

He too said no one from NST called him to seek clarification on the claims.

Paulsen also questioned NST's professionalism in quoting International Movement for a Just World (JUST) president Professor Dr Chandra Muzaffar as saying NED assistance was handed out with the objective of stirring up people and that contributions had hidden agendas. 

"If NST had been a proper media organisation with integrity, why didn't they ask Chandra Muzaffar about his track record or where he receives funding?” he asked.

Most of the organisations named in the article deal with public interest issues. Lawyers for Liberty deals with cases of police shooting and brutality. 

“We are pro-democracy and support electoral reform, but somehow that's always linked to being anti-government,”  added Paulsen.

Related story: NGOs hold press conference to deny claims

Malaysiakini chief executive officer Premesh Chandran explained that the portal receives grants not just from NED but also from other international donors to support its special projects.

Aside from Seacem, the grants helped Malaysiakini build a team of 300 citizen journalists from across the country and set up information sites such as Undi.info and digitalibrary.my.

"We're happy to work with international foundations on interesting projects to promote press freedom.  We are transparent about such partnerships. These grants form a small part of Malaysiakini's budget,” he said.

Representatives from Suaram, SEAPA and Liberal Banter Sdn Bhd also told Yahoo! Malaysia that NST had not contacted them for their response to Chandra's allegations.

The NED website states that it is funded largely by the US Congress and was created jointly by the Republicans and Democrats, with both parties having representation on its board. 

The NED also posts all its grant recipients and activities on its site and is subjected to multiple layers of oversight by the Congress, the Department of State and independent financial audits.

Ambiga had, in a June report from The Malaysian Insider, admitted to receiving funding from two US organisations — the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and Open Society Institute (OSI) for projects that were unrelated to the July 9 rally. NDI is named in the NST article as an NED fund recipient.

A smaller article, making similar allegations, was also carried on page six of Friday's edition of The Star.

This is not the first time that NGOS have been questioned about their funding sources.  In 1999, Malaysia's former Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar pointed out that the government objected to foreign funding for political parties and NGOS prior to the 10th General Elections. 

He had said the government considered moral and financial support from foreign missions to local parties and NGOS unacceptable and were “acts of interference”.