PETALING JAYA, Feb 27 — The Kelantan Forestry Department offered to drop a case against two journalists if they agree to plead guilty and pay a RM1,000 fine, documentary maker Jules Rahman Ong claimed today.
Ong and his cameraman colleague Too Chee Hung were arrested last month by state forestry officers while shooting a documentary on the plight of Orang Asli villagers defending their homes in forest reserves in Gua Musang.
Speaking to reporters here, Ong said the offer was made last Thursday.
He also said the Forestry Department’s investigative officer in charge of the duo’s case had informed them that the investigation papers on their case have yet to be sent to the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC).
“(He) kind of persuaded us to just settle it out of court and pay the fine and plead guilty.
“In fact we told him if you have done your investigation and you are going to see the DPP, if that is the procedure, then go ahead,” he said, using the abbreviation for deputy public prosecutor.
He said the duo will not be paying the RM1,000 fine and will instead wait for the AGC to decide whether or not to press charges against them.
“To do that (pay the fine), I feel like I’ll be sending a message that it is ok for the government to curtail our rights to access of information.
“Journalists are the ones who bring that information, this information is important, it is of public importance and interest. It is not just about permits and being able to apply permits, much more than that, much more at stake,” he added.
Ong said he and Too, who is also known as Chi Too, went to the Kelantan Forestry Department’s office as part of the conditions of their bail, which requires them to appear there once every month over a period of three months.
Ong described the events during the Kelantan Forestry Department’s January 24 arrest of him and his colleague under Section 47(1) of the National Forestry Act 1984, saying that they “might” sue the officers over their actions and alleged abuse of powers.
Among other things, Section 47(1) prohibits those without an entry permit for permanent forest reserves from entering a closed forest, with the penalty being a maximum RM10,000 fine or maximum three years’ jail or both.
Asked if the duo felt worried about the penalties if criminal charges are pressed against them, he said: “I think we are angry about it, because we feel it’s very unjust laws, we are not criminals, we did not do anything wrong. We are there to cover an issue of public interest as befits our profession as journalists”.
“It’s not an easy matter to have to go through this, this is making life difficult for doing your job as journalist.
Relating the events that befell him and Too, Ong said they both had been surrounded by around 30 to 40 forestry officers and were handcuffed and had insults hurled at them. There were no uniformed police officers present, he added.
The forestry officials also forcefully seized all their equipment and memory cards after allowing the duo to copy the contents, he said, adding that the equipment was eventually returned as the department lacked the jurisdiction to confiscate.
They were initially refused the right to see their lawyer and were eventually bailed out of 12 hours of being held, with Ong feeling the whole process was unnecessary as they could have just been told to leave the forest due to a lack of permit.
“We were not there to harm the forest we did not have any equipment to poach or cut down trees,” he said, noting that they had already given prior notice that they would be making the documentary there.
“So I think for them to react in such a manner is in bad faith because we have already informed them and we have requested through official letters,” he said.
According to Ong, the documentary on the deforestation in Gua Musang and the Orang Asli community’s blockade efforts to save the forest titled “Fighting for My Home” for Channel News Asia’s “Get Real” programme will be aired tomorrow night at 8pm on HyppTv’s Channel 411.
When asked if he expects to be further targeted after the documentary is aired, Ong said: “Telling the truth is a dangerous business in this country.”
* An earlier version of this story contain an error which has since been corrected.