|REPORTING FROM MALAYSIA|
October 21 ,1999
TERENCE SMITH: Murray Hiebert, a Canadian journalist based in Kuala Lumpur, was released from a Malaysian jail last week. Hiebert was the Malaysia bureau chief for the "Far Eastern Economic Review," an English-language weekly published by Dow Jones that circulates throughout Asia. In 1997, he wrote an article about the growing litigiousness of Malaysian society, and quickly learned that the Malaysian judicial system does not take criticism lightly.
In his article, Hiebert wrote of a case in which the wife of an appeals court judge filed a $2.4 million suit against her son's school, claiming that he had been unfairly dropped from the school debating team. Finding Hiebert guilty of contempt, the Malaysian high court judge said he had written the article to misinform the general public and to intimidate and pressure the court. "Hiebert," he said, "repeatedly scandalized the courts and our judiciary." The journalist denied the charge and appealed his conviction, but the government took up his passport to prevent him from leaving the country. Hiebert lost his appeal and began serving a reduced sentence in September.
His jailing prompted a White House statement in which President Clinton said he was deeply concerned about Hiebert's imprisonment. "Putting a journalist in jail for doing his job undermines the press freedoms that play such a critical role in building a democratic society. Hiebert's imprisonment was just one of the legal and political controversies currently swirling around Malaysia, a former British colony of 22 million people.
SPOKESMAN: We have to regain control.
TERENCE SMITH: Its autocratic prime minister, Mahatir Mohammad, attracted attention late last year when he jailed his principal deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, on charges of corruption and sexual misbehavior. (Protesters chanting) Anwar's arrest led to demonstrations by an antigovernment movement, the Reformasi, who filled the streets outside the courthouse. Prime Minister Mahatir, who has been in office for 18 years, brooks little opposition in Malaysia and imposes strict curbs on the local media. He also lashes out periodically at foreign governments and international speculators. Like much of Asia, Malaysia suffered from an economic slump in the last couple of years, but Mahatir refused foreign aid, imposing his own currency controls. Economic indicators this fall show the country in the midst of a financial recovery. Mahatir claims that's due to what he calls the "Sinatra principle" -- doing it his way.
TERENCE SMITH: We're joined now by Murray Hiebert. Welcome to you and congratulations on two scores: One, you're out of jail, and two, you've just been named the Washington Bureau Chief for the "Far Eastern Economic Review." So welcome. Why do you think the Malaysian authorities chose to prosecute you and jail you?
MURRAY HIEBERT: Well, I honestly... I had time to think about it and I really haven't come up with an answer. It happened that I bumped into this story that... there are some powerful people behind it that I didn't recognize, were there when I started the story, and they used antiquated British contempt of court law that allowed them to put me in jail for writing an article that in most settings, would have been viewed as very innocuous.
TERENCE SMITH: Was it to make an example of you, to put the rest of the western press on warning?
MURRAY HIEBERT: I think not only the western press, but maybe also the local press. I think when I was sentenced initially to three months in jail, the room was full of journalists. And I was standing in front of the judge. And listening to this, I couldn't see what was going on behind me, but I heard this "uh" sort of hit in the solar plexus of the journalists when I was sentenced to three months. And I think all of them, mostly locals, viewed it as a shot across their bow, that if they go too far in criticizing the judiciary that they will face the same consequences.
TERENCE SMITH: In the end, you spent a month in a Malaysian prison. What was that like?
MURRAY HIEBERT: Actually, the conditions, considering, weren't too bad. I mean, it's obviously very shocking to lose your freedom. It's... prison is a bit dehumanizing in that you're no longer a name but a number. The bathrooms are totally in the open in the rooms. But the prison officials tried their best to make my stay as comfortable as possible considering that I was a prisoner.
TERENCE SMITH: You accepted, you chose to accept a reduced jail term rather than appeal the case yet again to the highest court. Why?
MURRAY HIEBERT: Well, first of all, I had lost my passport already as part of the bail process. I was sentenced in mid-1997. Until September, when my appeal was finally heard, I hadn't had a passport. I couldn't leave Malaysia. And we really, frankly, figured that if we lost at the second round, that to win it the third round after waiting maybe another two years would be a big risk, that we might lose and go to jail after waiting much longer. So we chose to go in now.
TERENCE SMITH: And being confined to the country for yet another two years.
MURRAY HIEBERT: Right.
TERENCE SMITH: What does this say about the independence of the Malaysian judiciary or the lack thereof?
MURRAY HIEBERT: Well, the prime minister, who was just toured the United States in September, was insisting it is very independent, that the government has nothing to do with it. But Malaysia did have a very independent judiciary until 1987. At that point, the prime minister, Mahatir, fired the chief justice. And ever since, it's been a very pliant judiciary. It's also, I think, fair to say it's a judiciary that's considered to be rather corrupt, that there are companies that are able to buy their judges. There are very high awards given to certain companies. They get the judge they want. It's far less independent now than it was, let's say, ten or fifteen years ago.
TERENCE SMITH: If you wrote in the Far Eastern economic Review what you just said on this broadcast, would you be penalized for it?
MURRAY HIEBERT: Yes, that's unacceptable. I would be back in jail.
TERENCE SMITH: So what does this tell you about Malaysia today as a country?
MURRAY HIEBERT: Well, I think Malaysia, it is a country that's going through all kinds of turmoil. We've not only had the regional economic crisis, but we've had the political crisis where there's been a conflict between Prime Minister Mahatir and his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, who he fired a little over a year ago and threw in jail and was put on trial. The country...it's a troubled, very... it's a sad country at this point in terms of where it's going to go politically.
TERENCE SMITH: I want to get back to that, but you mentioned earlier that this...your case is not, in fact, the only suit filed right now against western journalists. Isn't that right?
MURRAY HIEBERT: No, that's right. There are... just the company I work for, Dow Jones, the publishers of the "Wall Street Journal" are facing seven or eight suits that are seven or eight suits that are totaling $250 million for three different articles that have been published in the Asian "Wall Street Journal."
TERENCE SMITH: So this is really an aggressive campaign to put the press on notice.
MURRAY HIEBERT: Yes. To mind their p's and q's. And there are certain subjects... writing about the courts, I learned, is off limits -- writing about businessmen who are close to the prime minister. One of the lawsuits is by the prime minister's son; another is by a businessman that's very close to him, and another is by other businessmen who are very close. So it's really... the courts are there to be used by people and in political and economic power.
TERENCE SMITH: So you write about that at your peril.
MURRAY HIEBERT: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: You mentioned earlier the case of Anwar Ibrahim, and he is now in jail, of course, serving a sentence. What does that say? First of all, what brought about that prosecution, in your opinion? And what does it say about the stability of that government?
MURRAY HIEBERT: Well, I think what brought it on is simply a conflict between an older 74-year-old leader and his younger protégé, who was getting inpatient. It really was a generational conflict. Anwar gambled that some other leaders in the region had fallen, that many countries in Southeast Asia were becoming more democratic, that he was going to push. And when he bumped into the immovable object of Mahatir Mohammad, he lost, and he ended up in jail and is now on his second trial.
TERENCE SMITH: What, then, are the prospects for an orderly transfer of power in Malaysia?
MURRAY HIEBERT: Well, I think that's very uncertain. With Anwar, who had been a protégé for a long time, things are very clear. Mahatir has named... the country has named a new deputy, Abdullah Badawi, who has not got the experience or the charisma or the foresight, I think, to run the country in a way that Anwar would have been able to do. It makes for potential instability. He could easily be challenged. Mahatir has whacked the institutions into his image. And it's quite possible that when he dies or is incapacitated, that his successor will have trouble controlling the institutions -- the parliament, the press, the courts and those things.
TERENCE SMITH: While the political situation may be troubled, the economic situation actually seems to be on the upswing. I mean, they seem to have survived the Asian flu, as it was called, the economic troubles, better than some of their neighbors.
MURRAY HIEBERT: Yes. Malaysia never got hit as hard as, let's say, Korea, South Korea, Indonesia, or Thailand. Part of it was that Malaysia never borrowed abroad as heavily as did their neighbors and as a result, when the currency was hit, the cost of repaying the debt wasn't so bad and they were able to survive much better. On top of that, Malaysia has a negative unemployment. It has about 12 percent or more of the workers in the country are actually foreigners. So they could be sent home when the crisis hit, and so unemployment never became a big problem.
TERENCE SMITH: So it sounds-- you tell me if this is correct-- that this is a country where the economic future is relatively bright, but the political future is a little cloudy.
MURRAY HIEBERT: Yeah, I would agree with that. Economically, they've done a lot of the right things. There's been a very... much controversy surrounding the prime minister's introduction of capital controls in September '98. There was a lot of speculation that the capital controls would result in inflation, in corruption, and all kinds of disequilibrium. But, in the end, it seems Malaysia is recovering with its neighbors roughly at the same pace. It never went into a tailspin like we thought. So the capital controls neither were very bad, neither seemed to have helped very much.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Murray Hiebert, thank you very much.
MURRAY HIEBERT: Thank you.