Malaysia should respect freedom of the press in the standoff in Sabah. This is to avoid misinformation of the type that happened ago two days ago. When shooting erupted in Sabah, Philippine authorities said that there were only 2 casualties, while the sultanate of Sulu claimed that there were 14. Malaysian officials, on the other hand, claimed that 14 followers of the Sultanate managed to escape.


It is in times of crisis that the freedom of the press should be fully protected. Independent of the issue of who has title over Sabah, both the Malaysian and the Philippine public have a right to know what has been happening in the stand-off. Certainly, the death count, as well as the manner by which the human rights of the supporters of the Sultanate of Sulu are legitimate issues imbued with public interest.


The Philippines and Malaysian authorities have been at a standoff when 200 or so supporters of the Sultanate of Sulu went to Sabah purportedly to claim the island back on behalf of their sultanate. In 1878, the Sultanate of Sulu entered into a contract of “pajak” with Overbeck and Dent, the latter as representatives of the North Borneo Trading Company. Malaysians have construed “pajak” to mean cession. The Philippines claim it is a “lease”. Since 1878, Malaysia authorities have been paying to the sultanate the equivalent of 5000 ringgit annually.


Lord Granville, a Foreign Secretary for Great Britain maintained that the UK did not claim sovereignty over Sabah since the North Borneo Trading Company was not an instrumentality of Great Britain. Furthermore, Mr., Treacher, a British consular official who accompanied Overbeck and Dent to Sulu for the signing of the contract of “pajak” claimed that what was signed was a contract of lease.


Both the Philippines and Malaysia are signatories to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Art 19 of the same recognizes the duties of state parties thereto to protect and promote freedom of expression and of the press.


Malaysian state police recently detained an Al Jazeera team, including its Filipina producer, Jamela Alindogan, for covering the standoff. Henry Omaga Diaz of ABS-CBN News was also asked to leave the area and was threatened by Malaysian authorities with arrest.


The Media Defense Southeast Asia is a regional organization of lawyers defending freedom of expression in Southeast Asia. It unequivocally condemns Malaysia’s utter disregard and violation of freedom of the press in Sabah.



Blog Harry RoqueHarry Roque Jr. is a professor of law at the University of the Philippines. 

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