The country rejects allegations of discrimination and racism against undocumented migrants arrested in raids under tight lockdown
The images were far from flattering: neighborhoods enclosed with barbed wire, throngs of residents herded single file into trucks, people sitting on the road handcuffed to one another.
They came from ‘Locked Up in Malaysia’s Lockdown’, a 25-minute documentary produced by the Qatar-based news network Al Jazeera and broadcast on July 3 on the weekly program ‘101 East’.
The documentary tackled the Malaysian government’s “military-style” raids on migrant communities under the pretext of coronavirus management.
The raids have seen migrants—including children and the elderly—rounded up and “handcuffed and chained together” for hours under the hot sun while they waited for their documents to be verified.
This included their experiences during a raid by authorities on Jalan Masjid India – a popular shopping streets in downtown Kuala Lumpur — on May 1, which led to the arrest of several undocumented foreigners, which the Qatar-based news agency described as ‘racist and inhumane’.
The documentary raises allegations of mistreatment and persecution of foreigners at the height of Malaysia’s battle against the Covid-19 pandemic.
At the same time, there are concerns that harsh punishments towards the media would limit press freedoms and cover-up wrongdoings by the authorities.
Soon after the documentary made its way online, Malaysian government shifted their focus to a Bangladeshi migrant worker, who was seen criticizing the Malaysian government.
Rayhan Kabir told the news channel that he was forbidden from seeing his friends who were detained.
In the documentary, Rayhan showed footages on his phone of other migrants being herded down the street by government officials. He also shared how some migrant workers were arrested when their companies failed to renew their visas, calling the government measures a “clear act of racism.”
Rayhan’s work permit revoked
The Immigration department has since asked for the public’s assistance to locate Rayhan and soon after, revoked his work permit.
“As far as I know, the Immigration Department has cancelled it,” Malaysia’s Inspector-General of Police Abdul Hamid Bador told an online news portal Free Malaysia Today (FMT) when asked about Rayhan.
The department is looking for the 25-year-old in relation to its investigation under the Immigration Act.
Meanwhile, Dhaka is currently in talks with Kuala Lumpur to regularize undocumented migrants to allow them to work in the country, a Bangladeshi newspaper reported on July 7.
The newspaper cited a Bangladesh High Commission official as confirming the ongoing talks.
“As recruitment of foreign workers has been suspended from July 1 till the end of this year, there is a strong possibility that Malaysia will announce an amnesty for the undocumented migrants,” the official was quoted saying.
The newspaper reported that an estimated 200,000 of the roughly 800,000 Bangladeshis in Malaysia could be undocumented migrants.
Malaysia grills Al Jazeera journalists
Malaysian police on Friday questioned five Australian journalists from Al Jazeera over the documentary, as the broadcaster expressed shock at the probe.
The investigation into the Qatar-based network's programme has added to concerns about a widening media crackdown in Malaysia after a scandal-plagued party came to power earlier this year.
In addition to the Al Jazeera case, the head of a leading news portal has been accused of contempt of court while a health news site's editor is being probed over an article.
'Journalism is not a crime'
Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade confirmed it was providing assistance to a number of Australians in Kuala Lumpur.
Ahead of the questioning, Al Jazeera said it was "shocked" by Malaysia's response to the documentary, broadcast on July 3, and it stood by the "professionalism, quality and impartiality of its journalism."
"Charging journalists for doing their jobs is not the action of a democracy that values free speech," it said. "Journalism is not a crime."
Al Jazeera's English-language channel has its Asian base in Kuala Lumpur.
The International Federation of Journalists, which represents media unions worldwide, said it "deeply regrets" Malaysian authorities using tough laws against transmitting offensive content "to silence and intimidate journalists."
The show sparked a huge backlash online in Malaysia, and the defence minister demanded an apology from the broadcaster.
Authorities said the arrests in May of undocumented migrants were necessary to protect the public, although rights groups raised concern that placing them in detention centres could increase the risk of coronavirus infection.
Malaysia is home to large numbers of migrants from poorer countries -- including Indonesia, Bangladesh and Myanmar -- who work in industries ranging from manufacturing to agriculture.
Concern has been growing about worsening freedom of expression in Malaysia since a reformist government collapsed in February and a coalition headed by a scandal-mired party seized power.