KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 5 ― The authorities are just using a so-called vague law to investigate electoral watchdog Bersih 2.0 and media outlet Malaysiakini as receiving foreign funds by itself is not a crime, lawyers have said.
Lawyer New Sin Yew said there is no law prohibiting anyone from receiving funds from overseas, adding that this is also not barred under Section 124C of the Penal Code which is being used to probe Malaysiakini and Bersih 2.0 chair Maria Chin Abdullah.
“If there is no law against receiving funds from overseas, there is nothing for the police to enforce.
“Section 124C is vague and vague laws are prone to abuse. But even with its vague wordings, it does not prohibit receiving foreign funds. The police cannot use 124C as a catch-all and to create an offence when there is none,” he told Malay Mail Online when contacted yesterday.
Section 124C covers the offence of attempting to commit activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy and comes with a mandatory jail term that can go up to 15 years.
“Furthermore, news reporting cannot by any stretch of imagination be detrimental to parliamentary democracy. Contrariwise, free journalism is one of the foundations of democracy,” New said.
Lawyer Eric Paulsen highlighted that receiving foreign funds by itself is not wrong, adding that the use of Section 124C against the two is in “bad faith” as it relates to the violent overthrow of the government.
“The reason they are coming out with Section 124C is because there is no specific offence for receiving funds from overseas, that's why they have picked this provision because it is vague enough in their mind to cover receiving funds from overseas,” he told Malay Mail Online when contacted yesterday.
For Bersih 2.0 and Malaysiakini to be accused of attempting to undermine parliamentary democracy merely because they receive foreign funds is a “huge leap of logic that defies belief”, when the former wants free and fair elections while the latter is a media organisation that is just doing its duty of reporting news, he said.
“Its clearly a case of harassment and intimidation against Bersih and Malaysiakini,” he said, noting that the polls reform group's Bersih 5 rally on November 19 is nearing.
Civil liberties lawyer Andrew Khoo also weighed in on the use of Section 124C for the investigations, saying: “This is absurd because of the definition of 'activities detrimental to parliamentary means' in the Penal Code, which is 'violent or unconstitutional'. What is violent or unconstitutional about foreign funding?”
Section 130A of the Penal Code defines “activity detrimental to parliamentary democracy” as the carrying out of an activity “designed to overthrow or undermine parliamentary democracy by violent or unconstitutional means”.
Legal experts have in the past highlighted that it was unclear what “parliamentary democracy” actually means as it is not explained in the Penal Code.
Lawyer Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan said what Maria and Malaysiakini are going through now over the funding issue was “outrageous”, noting many “upstanding humanitarian and other organisations receive such funding”.
“The reason Maria is being targeted is because of Bersih, Malaysiakini because of their courage in publishing articles critical of the leadership.
“If anything is undermining parliamentary democracy, it is actions like this ― not allowing 1MDB to be discussed in Parliament, banning the rally and all the weeks of pummelling that Bersih has received from violent and uncouth members of the public,” she told Malay Mail Online when contacted yesterday, using the acronym for 1Malaysia Development Bhd.
Lawyer Melissa Sasidaran meanwhile described the investigations as a “witch hunt” against Bersih 2.0 and Malaysiakini whom she said have been steadfast in their respective roles of working for free and fair election and independent journalism.
“This repeated intimidation by the authorities and the ridiculous allegation is merely a convenient excuse in order to further suppress them from carrying out their roles within a democracy,” she said.
Both Bersih 2.0 and Malaysiakini are being probed over allegations that they were part of a list of Malaysian entities that had received funding from US billionaire George Soros's Open Society Foundations (OSF).
Malaysiakini has confirmed that it received an OSF grant which it used to produce the “Realiti Sarawak” and “Sekilas Bumi Kenyalang” programmes under its video arm KiniTV, but said it only constituted a small portion of its revenue and that its funding comes from subscribers, advertisements and donors.
OSF has said that claims that it funded attempts to overthrow the Malaysian government is false, insisting that the money it provides to Malaysian civil society is to “support democratic practice” and was for projects such as voter eduction and election monitoring.
The foundation also said that while it had extended “small grants” to Bersih 2.0 in 2012 as well as the groups under its umbrella, it was not currently funding the electoral watchdog.