Al Jazeera defends report on migrant arrests amid outrage in Malaysia

Al Jazeera journalists arrive at the Bukit Aman police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, on July 10, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR (REUTERS) - News broadcaster Al Jazeera has rejected allegations by Malaysian authorities that a documentary it aired last week about the arrest of undocumented migrants during the coronavirus pandemic was inaccurate, misleading and unfair.

Malaysian police called in Al Jazeera's reporters and staff for questioning on Friday (July 10) after several officials accused the documentary of trying to tarnish the country's image.

Locked up in Malaysia's Lockdown, the documentary produced by the Qatar-based station's 101 East news programme, focused on the plight of thousands of undocumented migrants detained during raids in areas under tight coronavirus lockdowns.

Defence minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob called on Al Jazeera to apologise to Malaysians, saying allegations of racism and discrimination against undocumented migrants were untrue.

In a statement late Thursday, Al Jazeera said it stood by the "professionalism, quality and impartiality of its journalism" and called on Malaysia to withdraw the criminal investigation.

"Charging journalists for doing their jobs is not the action of a democracy that values free speech. Journalism is not a crime," it said.

The prime minister's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A spokesman for the police said the police chief is expected to address the matter at a news conference later Friday.

Al Jazeera said that it had repeatedly sought to obtain the government's view but that requests for interviews with senior ministers and officials were not accepted.

Despite this, Al Jazeera said it "still produced a balanced film by including comments made by the Defence Minister at two press conferences".

Al Jazeera also said its staff in Malaysia have faced abuse, death threats and disclosure of their personal details on social media, and expressed concern over hate speech targeting those interviewed in the documentary.

Authorities this week issued a search notice for a Bangladeshi person interviewed by Al Jazeera.

Rights groups have raised concerns over crackdowns on media freedoms under Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's government, which came into power in March, as well as rising anger toward foreigners, who have been accused of spreading the coronavirus and burdening state resources.

In May, police questioned a journalist from the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post over her reporting on the migrant arrests.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.