PETALING JAYA: Suaram denied today that it is a tool for foreign hands to destabilise the Malaysian government as alleged by New Straits Times (NST) daily today, adding that the US-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED) has no say in its direction or projects.

NST claimed today that the Washington-based NED is seeking to destabilise the government by channelling up to RM20 million in funds to Malaysian non-governmental organisations (NGO) such as Suaram, Lawyers for Liberty (LFL), the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) as well as news portal Malaysiakini.

But the front page report “Plot to destabilise govt” did not specify how the organisations planned to overthrow the Barisan Nasional-led government with the donated funds.

It also failed to substantiate its claim that the NED wished to destabilise the government, beyond citing “investigators” and “sources”, and a Berita Harian interview with Aliran founder Professor Dr Chandra Muzzafar yesterday.

When asked to comment on the report, Suaram chairperson K Arumugam said that it was no secret that NED provided funds to Suaram, but added that that was the full extent of NED’s role in the human rights group.

“We make it clear in our annual human rights report that NED provides us with funds so that we are able to monitor the violation of civil and political rights in Malaysia. It’s not some top secret thing,” Arumugam told FMT.

“But NED doesn’t decide what we do in Malaysia. We decide what we plan to do, then we apply for funding for those projects. They don’t dictate nor direct anything.”

He said that there were many agencies online that were willing to donate to human rights organisations, and that Suaram’s link with the NED had began via a simple Google search for funds.

“So the idea that the NED wants to destabilise the government through Suaram is completely nonsense, pure rubbish,” Arumugam said.

“How are we supposed to even do that? We are such a small group of people. Is the government so unstable?”

He further pointed out that if such allegations were true, then the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) would not have presented Suaram with a human rights award last year.

“So we are recognised for our human rights by a statutory body formed by the government itself. It’s highly unlikely they would award it to a group that intends to overthrow the government,” he said.

‘Practise journalism ethics, NST’

Arumugam also slammed NST for not calling up Suaram or any of the other NGOs mentioned in the article before publishing it.

“NST should have called Suaram to create a balanced reporting. Instead of allowing us to respond to the allegations, it merely discredited Suaram,” he said.

“While it is their freedom of expression to publish it, we would have appreciated some balanced reporting,” he added.

His view was echoed by CIJ executive officer Masjaliza Hamzah, who poured scorn on the article for lacking neutrality and evidence.

“NST should practise journalism ethics. One, they did not call us for any quotes. Two, they should have provided evidence,” she told FMT.

“If anyone is accused of destabilising the government, this is a serious charge and they cannot make such a serious charge and not provide evidence.”

Masjaliza said that such an article should have been relegated to a blog rather than the front page due to its lack of substantiated facts and sources.

“Show proof. They need to name what activities CIJ has done that points to it being part of a larger plot to destabilise the government,” she challenged.

‘Article a smear campaign’

Like Arumugam, LFL co-founder and advisor Eric Paulsen found the article to be “quite ridiculous” and an obvious attack against NGOs that challenge the government’s credibility.

“LFL has been vocal, without fear of favour, on issues such as abuse of power, detention without trial, police shootings,” Paulsen told FMT.

“These are all issues that affect the government’s credibility. So, presumably, that is why NST has written such an article.”

He also said that the article was clearly linked to Suaram as the latter has been in the highlight after initiating a French inquiry probing Malaysia’s multibillion ringgit purchase of two Scorpene submarines.

“Suaram exposed the hundreds of millions that the government paid for commissions for submarines that we don’t even need, and this has caused huge embarrassment to the government.

“Suaram’s is a credible human rights organisation, so clearly the decision to persecute it, as well as to publish such a sensational front page article, is linked to the Scorpene scandal,” he said.

Chandra’s absence of logic

Paulsen also pointed out the absence of logic in Chandra’s views published in the NST article, which was taken from the latter’s interview with Berita Harian.

Chandra (photo) had said that NED had been known to lend financial support to NGOS in particular countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria with the objective of making people rise up against leaders who were allegedly deemed to be cruel.

“There is also proof they provided assistance to groups opposing leaders in South and Central America at one time with the excuse that the leaders were tyrants and undemocratic,” Chandra was quoted as saying.

“There is an absence of logic to what Chandra is saying. He seems to be justifying tyrannical government – that it’s okay to suffer under local tyranny and if NGOs want to challenge it, they cannot use foreign funding,” he said.

“The issue with Chandra is not what the NGOs do with the money, but that foreign funding is evil. So I’d like to ask Chandra back: where has he been receiving funds all this while?”

Paulsen said that Chandra should look beyond the issue of foreign funding and to focus on what the funds allegedly channelled by NED were used for.

“For Malaysiakini and the Centre of Independent Journalism, they use their funds for independent news; Lawyers for Liberty is against detention without trial, police shootings and it champions freedom of speech,” he said.

“So unless Chandra is saying he is against independent news, and that he is for detention without trial and wants the police shootings to continue, there is an absence of logic there.”

But when asked if NST’s claim that NED funded LFL was true, Paulsen was coy.

“We receive all kinds of funding, but it would be better not to say as such information can be easily manipulated – just take a look at NST’s front page today,” he chuckled.

“Our funds are a matter of public record, so we generally do not announce where we get them from.”

Promoting press freedom

Malaysiakini chief executive officer Premesh Chandran said that the news portal receives grants from NED as well as other international donors to support its projects.

“We’re happy to work with international foundations on interesting projects to promote press freedom. We are transparent about such partnerships. These grants form a small part of Malaysiakini’s budget,” he said in a statement.

But he stressed that despite the funds from international donors, Malaysiakini emphasised on editorial independence, which he said represented one of the website’s key core values.

“We strongly believe that without independent financing, there will be no editorial independence.

“To preserve this, Malaysiakini must be independent from the government, advertisers, donors as well as political parties.

“That is why, to this day, Malaysiakini is still majority-owned (70 percent) by its co-founders and its staff. We also ask our readers to pay a subscription fee so that the bulk of our revenue comes from readers, as well as through advertising.

He said Malaysiakini would maintain its editorial independence, and will continue to work with like-minded partners on projects that promote press freedom.

“We believe that press freedom is essential for democracy. It is the only way to hold the government accountable, stop corruption and the politics of patronage,” he added.

Anisah Shukry | September 21, 2012, Free Malaysia Today