KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysian police grilled a group of reporters and staff from news broadcaster Al Jazeera on Friday over a documentary on the treatment of undocumented immigrants that officials have slammed as unfair and biased.
National police chief Abdul Hamid Bador said the documentary aired earlier this month had sparked public anger and an initial probe showed it was inaccurate and depicted the country in a negative light.
He said the attorney-general ordered an investigation into the documentary for possible sedition, defamation and violation of the country’s Communications and Multimedia Act. Six people from Al Jazeera were questioned Friday, with a seventh person who uploaded the documentary to be summoned soon, he said.
The Qatar-based network has defended its journalism and expressed concern over the probe. Its team was accompanied by lawyers at the police headquarters on Friday.
“I support the principle of media freedom that is responsible but this report has sparked public anger," Abdul Hamid said at a news conference. “The AG will decide in a matter of a few days whether there is any case and whether they need to be charged. If they feel they are fair in their reporting ... don't be afraid.”
Rights activists have voiced concern over a clampdown on freedom of speech and media independence under new Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who took power in March after a political coup.
The July 3 documentary, titled “Locked Up in Malaysia’s Lockdown," investigated how undocumented immigrants were at risk during the coronavirus pandemic. More than 2,000 migrant workers were arrested during raids in areas in Kuala Lumpur that were placed under tight virus lockdowns.
Police have said they are also searching for a Bangladeshi man who was interviewed in the documentary. Defense Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob has demanded that Al Jazeera apologize to Malaysians for untrue claims of discrimination and mistreatment of migrants.
In a statement Thursday, Al Jazeera said it stands by the “professionalism, quality and impartiality of its journalism." It said the report contained the views and experiences of a wide range of people, including a well-respected Malaysian doctor and relief worker.
It said it repeatedly sought interviews with government officials but was rejected, and instead sought to produce a balanced documentary by including televised comments by the defense minister. It expressed concerns over the safety of those it interviewed, as well as its staff who have been the target of online harassment and death threats, with their personal details disclosed on social media.
”Charging journalists for doing their jobs is not the action of a democracy that values free speech. Journalism is not a crime," it said. It called for the right to report freely without intimidation and urged Malaysia to drop the criminal investigation.
Abdul Hamid pledged a fair investigation and said the Al Jazeera team will have a chance to defending themselves if they are charged. He urged the network to lodge a police report if its staff is threatened.
In July, police questioned the head of a private group about a social media post alleging mistreatment of refugees at immigration detention centers. Two months earlier, a journalist from the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post was questioned about her reporting on the migrant arrests.
The attorney-general also filed contempt proceedings last month against popular online news portal Malaysiakini and its editor over comments posted by readers against the judiciary.