Dailies peddling misleading half truths

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Angeline Loh looks at how the media have covered Asahi Kosei’s lawsuit against rights defender Charles Hector and discovers a distinct pro-business bias.

One would not be wrong in thinking that telling half-truths or being “economical with the truth” (as defined by Edmund Burke, an 18th century British philosopher and politician) would mislead the general public. This may also be seen as an abuse of the right to freedom of expression and information. Deliberate dissemination of misinformation is prejudicial, biased and borders on rumour-mongering and slander.

This tactic is frequently used from time to time by particular local mainstream news providers who appear not to give any second thought to publishing reports that only give half the true picture of a real situation. Despite being punctuated with half-truths, these reports purport to be the product of professional and ethical journalism practised by mainstream news organisations claiming the trust of the general public as to the truth and accuracy of their reports.

A glaring example of this one-sidedness appeared in Utusan Malaysia on 12 April 2011 under the headline “Dakwa langgar hak asasi: Syarikat Jepun saman fitnah peguam, aktivis” (“Human rights abuse claim: Japanese firm brings libel summons against lawyer, activist”).

The daily reported that a Japanese electronics company, Asahi Kosei Sdn Bhd, had brought a libel suit against Charles Hector Fernandez, a human rights activist and lawyer, alleging he had defamed them on his blog by posting allegations that the rights of 31 Burmese migrant workers working for the company had been violated.

They went on to reiterate that Charles Hector had failed to have set aside the ex-parte injunction against him granted to the company on its sole application on 17 February 2011. This was confirmed by Charles Hector’s defence counsel, Francis Pereira. It was also mentioned that the libel case had been filed in court by Asahi Kosei’s lawyers on 14 February prior to the application for the ex-parte injunction on the 17 February that the court had granted (Utusan Malaysia, 12 April 2011).

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Moreover, the company had demanded RM10m compensation and an open apology and removal of the postings about the 31 Burmese migrant workers’ complaints from Charles Hector’s blog. So far, so good, although the daily omitted information on the ex-parte injunction against Charles Hector Fernandez.

The report went on to say that the company which had been operating in Malaysia for the past 15 years said it was not the party responsible for the Burmese workers concerned who were supplied to them by a job recruitment agent. The company alleged that as a result of the blog postings, they had sustained economic loss and damage to their reputation and good image. This is mere reporting without substantiation as the daily did not elicit any proof or quantification of such losses as claimed by the company.

Although the Malay-language daily did mention that Charles Hector stated that the injunction should have been set aside as the company should rightly have engaged in a dialogue with the workers to iron out these problems, it failed to include the fact that Charles Hector had, communicated with the company on two occasions prior to posting the issue on his blog. In his enquiries, he had asked the company to verify the information given to him by the 31 Burmese workers, by either correcting or confirming it. These facts had been communicated to members of the press outside the court room in a leaflet handed to them by members of civil societies who were waiting to know the outcome of the chambers hearing.

Further, that this case is a matter of public interest and of concern to all civil society, human and migrant worker rights advocates was not mentioned in any of the reports by Bernama, the New Straits Times, Utusan Malaysia, Borneo Post Online, or Yahoo! Malaysia News, amongst other news providers that had picked up the story.

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However, the Borneo Post Online did add this significant comment by Hector’s counsel, Francis Pereira, regarding the judgment given by Judge Lim Yee Lan: “Pereira told reporters that the court made the decision on the grounds that bloggers could not claim the same defences that (can be) claimed by the media.” (Borneo Post Online,12 April 2011)

The implication of this crucial sentence has repercussions on all media whether mainstream or alternative including bloggers, other citizen journalists and writers. This would mean that those outside the mainstream media are deprived of any defence against being gagged by injunctions brought by any large corporation or anyone on a libel allegation.

Similarly, the treatment of the case by Bernama should be noted.

Dalam penyataan tuntutannya, Asahi Kosei berkata ia telah berdagang lebih daripada 15 tahun dalam industri pengeluaran bagi komponen video, hard disk drive komputer dan komponen untuk automotif bagi pasaran tempatan dan luar negera serta mempunyai pelanggan seperti Hitachi Otomotive Group, Denso Group, Toyota Group, Mitsubishi Heavy Industry Group dan Calsonic Group.

Syarikat itu berkata ia mempunyai modal saham yang dibenarkan
sebanyak RM50 juta yang dibahagikan kepada 50 juta saham biasa bernilai RM1 setiap satu di mana modal saham yang diterbitkan yang telah dibayar secara penuh adalah sebanyak RM50 juta. Asahi Kosei seterusnya mendakwa Hector dengan perasaan dengki atau secara cuai telah memaparkan sebanyak enam entri di blog tersebut antara 8 Feb dan 13 Feb lepas yang mempunyai kenyataan-kenyataan palsu.

Berikutan entri-entri tersebut, plaintif mendakwa ia telah berhadapan
dengan banyak pertanyaan daripada pelanggan-pelanggannya yang
mendesak syarikat itu memberi penjelasan dan turut mengalami kerugian teruk.

Asahi Kosei mendakwa entri-entri itu juga mempunyai maksud bahawa
syarikat berkenaan telah menipu dan tidak berperikemanusiaan serta
bersikap kejam terhadap pekerja-pekerja.

Source: Bernama report, 12 April 2011

In para 8 of the Bernama report quoted above, much was made of the Company’s background and their reasonably long standing operations in Malaysia. They are electronic component suppliers to big names like Hitachi, Denso, Toyota, Mitsubishi and Calsonic. According to the company, it has a permitted share capital of RM50m with 50 million ordinary shares valued at RM1 each.

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Moreover, Asahi Kosei alleges, amongst other things, that the six entries posted on Charles Hector’s blog were false, malicious and negligent. The company claimed the blog entries had caused their clients to question them and demand an explanation, resulting in substantial losses to the company. In addition, these blog entries allegedly implied that the Company cheated their workers and treated them in a cruel and inhumane way.

The greater coverage given by Bernama to the plaintiff’s version of the story, excluding and disregarding the defendant’s side, seems to imply that wealth and profitability equal respectability. Whereas respect for human rights and human dignity is of little importance when profit is to be made. Readers should therefore beware of the obvious partiality of such reports and recognise its inherent pro-business bias.

In reality, wealth and its trappings neither create respectability nor principled character. Moreover, the profitability of a business, regardless of its size and standing, cannot justify any actions in violation of human rights and human dignity. In persisting with this litigation and imposing an unjustified gag on a human and labour rights defender, the company has already exhibited its true nature and inherent disregard for the importance of the observance and practice of human rights and respect for human dignity.

If the company sees the light, it should desist in taking this the action against Charles Hector and engage positively in the labour process to resolve problems with all parties, amicably. Biting the bullet by doing the right and honourable thing, would earn Asahi Kosei greater respect from their customers, their employees and society at large, without any need for biased reporting to save their face.

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