MALAYSIA: Protest against a threat of litigation against human rights lawyer, public interest advocate and blogger Mr. Charles Hector Fernandez
The Asian Human Rights Commission has written an open letter to Asahi Kosei (M) Sdn. Bhd. Company in Malaysia in protest against its possible move to take legal action for libel against migrant labour rights advocate Charles Hector.
(To President of Asahi Kosei (M) Sdn. Bhd.)
The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is writing to draw your attention regarding the instructions to T.S. Teoh & Partners, your legal representative, on the possibility of taking legal action for libel against Mr. Charles Hector Fernandez, a blogger and lawyer, regarding the posts in his blog you claim to be libellous.
In the demand letter dated February 11, 2011, but which was served on Mr. Fernandez on February 14, you claimed that the content of his post in his blog charleshector.blogspot.com, on February 8, titled ' Hopefully ASAHI KOSEI (M) SDN. BHD wont terminate/deport workers who claim rights'; and on February 9, titled ' URGENT:- Stop ASAHI KOSEI (M) SDN. BHD from sending Thiha Soe (PP No: A 458011) back to Burma, were "very serious libel on our clients and have caused them much distress and embarrassment".
Your Company also demanded a payment of RM10,000,000.00 (USD3,279,307) within seven days from him to 'vindicate our clients reputation', to "remove the said postings and a full written and unequivocal public retraction and written apology in terms to be approved by us and an undertaking not to repeat these allegations".
As of today, the post that is subject of your complaint can still be accessed online. We understand that from the very beginning of this issue, Mr. Fernandez had been trying to draw your attention to the plight of workers who are complaining. Mr. Fernandez acted on legitimate complaints, like any other compassionate individuals would do, to hear and comment on the grievances of victims like them. On the same day the articles were posted, Mr. Fernandez sent emails to your Company asking for you to intervene. However, he has not received any response.
While we understand that legally your Company has the right to take legal action for the protection of your interests we urge you to reconsider this path. Your Company, who has been doing business and providing employment in Malaysia, would rather have more to gain and more contributions should you withdraw the legal action on Mr. Fernandez for the following reasons:
Narrating facts, evidence vs. narrating with malice
The content of Mr. Fernandez posts were purely narration of facts based on the information given to him by the Burmese migrant workers. He acted on behalf of the workers who are foreigners in Malaysian soil to assist them in obtaining remedies. In his posts, he asked questions and did not make declarations, wrote the term 'allegedly' and expressed human emotions of hope that your Company would respond to the workers' plight.
As you are aware, the migrant workers are from Burma. Most of them could not speak the language that is spoken in Malaysia; thus, if these workers could not even speak the language, we certainly could not expect them to know all the legal and complaint mechanisms therein, if there is anything that we could call effective in a real sense that is available in Malaysia.
The role on which Mr. Fernandez took on this case is very important. Where the state mechanisms are not known to victims, he has helped to inform the workers how to deal with it; and where information about complaints of violations are mostly unreported, he blogs on them for other people to intervene on behalf of the workers. We would not have known the case of these workers had it not been from his blog posts.
The complaint of the Burmese workers was only made possible to be put on record, particularly with the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM), because there are persons who assist in documenting their case. There was someone who could tell the workers the complaint mechanism available in a country where they are foreigners and in a place where they are most vulnerable from exploitation and abuse. In most cases, despite the endemic cases of violations on migrant workers, they prefer not to complain, to keep quiet and to just forget about what had happened to them for practical reasons.
As you are aware, the workers, which you argue are the responsibility of the employment agencies from where you get their service, are from Burma. They came to Malaysia and agreed to terms, often out rightly violating minimum protection to migrant workers, because they needed the job. They needed money to support their families living in Burma, a country where most of their people would prefer leaving than staying. Burma is one of the many countries where employment opportunities could not be found and the people suffer from its own government who do not protect them.
Workers lack protection: inside and outside their country
As you are aware, if citizens coming from developed countries are in trouble in another country, they have their mechanism where their Embassies and Consulates would contact and communicate with their citizens in trouble. They invest human resources, time, money and expertise to protect and to represent the interest of their own citizens regardless of whether they are at home or on foreign soil. Their mechanism of protection and assistance extends beyond the borders of their own country.
But the Burmese migrant workers whom Mr. Fernandez is assisting do not have this protection and assistance mechanism from their own government. A government who could not protect their own citizens in their own soil could not be expected to protect their citizens who are in trouble in foreign countries. These workers were not provided with assistance on their complaints or asked what help they needed, for example legal assistance on labour and immigration proceedings; as should be done by governments.
The wrongful deportation, as Mr. Fernandez had it described in his blog, of the Burmese migrant workers was a statement of fact and reflects the realities of the extreme difficulties these workers would have to deal with their government. How possible it is to deport a person back to his country when it is done in a procedure that was questionable? When a person in foreign countries had nothing but himself anything can be done on him. He has no protection at all. The Burmese workers, too, are themselves aware and know full well that they can never expect their own government to help them remedy their plight.
Implications of the legal action
We understand that any aggrieved party, like your Company, has the legal right to pursue complaints should they feel that their rights are violated. The AHRC is a strong advocate of effective complaints mechanism in Asian countries, particularly helping the victims of human rights violations. Your company has the right to take legal action in the same manner the victims of human rights violations do against officers of the State.
However, there is an enormous difference between upholding the person's or the entities lawful right to complain for its self preservation as against the right to complain to have the basic recognition of a fundamental right. The latter has far tremendous and deep consequences, not only on the persons or entities, but it affects the entire people in the society within their own country once they are suppressed. Needless to say, the reason why the violations of human rights, in its unspeakable terms, goes largely unreported and is not exposed to the public in Malaysia is because of the lack of recognition by their own society and their government to the fundamental principle of human rights: Freedom of Expression.
In Malaysia, laws have been used as a tool to prosecute persons who purely narrate facts, to prosecute and impose rigorous imprisonment on persons who only intend to initiate discourse on the conditions they face in their own country. They are charged, prosecuted and punished for expressing their thoughts and opinions, not because what they say was wrong or malicious but to suppress them from exposing the realities and the human conditions in their own country. In most countries, including Malaysia and Singapore, this type of legal action attacks not only the individual, but any sort of discourse on human rights and democracy.
Thus, we urged your Company not to be part of this concerted effort to suppress the struggle of the Malaysian people for recognition of the principles of Free Speech and Expression in Malaysia. We urged your Company to help them to have this fundamental right recognized not only in books and laws in their own society. By pursuing the legal action on Mr. Fernandez you are already helping in abusing a system of justice.
We urged your Company to uphold the principles of Corporate Responsibility but not abusing the legal process. In this way you can contribute to social progress in countries where you are allowed to do business to protect and uphold the interest of the people.
Wong Kai Shing
Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong
You can also read and respond to this Appeal:
MALAYSIA: A human rights lawyer and public interest advocate faces threats of legal action for blogging about a company allegedly violating rights of migrant workers
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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.