KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 21 ― Activists said today they are now the target of a smear campaign after a number of newspapers aligned with Barisan Nasional (BN) published stories alleging organisations like SUARAM and Bersih took foreign funds as part of a plot to destabilise the country.
It is understood the stories appearing in mainstream newspapers and television news programmes are based on a skeleton plan produced by Putrajaya.
Today, the activists acknowledged to The Malaysian Insider that many of their organisations had received funds from foreign and local sources, but said the money was meant to help finance their respective causes such as to promote democratic practices and campaign for human rights.
They said the funds and their sources were not part of any plot, as suggested by a headline today on the front page of the Umno-controlled New Straits Times.
A host of local non-governmental organisations were named in the report, including Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM), Lawyers for Liberty, Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (Bersih) and the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ).
A similar story also appeared in MCA-owned newspaper The Star. Both stories quoted sources and unnamed investigators probing the financial background of the NGOs.
The stories pointed out that RM20 million had been received by the NGOs between 2005 and last year from foreign sources such as the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the New York-based Open Society Institute (OSI).
It was not stated why the organisations were under investigation and what they had been doing to destabilise the government or the country.
But many of these organisations have been involved in recent years with campaigns for electoral reforms and for human rights.
“I don’t think there should be an issue about where the funding comes from, as long as whatever that has been done, the funder does not dictate the purpose of why an NGO does something.
“We (as an NGO) have a certain principle and stance. Whether it’s RM1 from (a Malaysian) or US$1 from someone outside the country, it doesn’t matter to us,” said Eric Paulsen, an advisor to Lawyers for Liberty.
He acknowledged that Pakatan Rakyat (PR) parties and many of the NGOs listed in the report were often seen as working together, but pointed out that this was because they were campaigning on the same issues such as being “against the Internal Security Act, Official Secrets Act, abuse of power and corruption.”
“However, if the opposition were to win GE13 and if they were to use the ISA and abuse power, then as NGOs who stand for liberty, we will remain the same and question and campaign against the use of such power.”
“What we are doing is done all over the world. We are campaigning against detention without trial. Is [there] talk about it destabilising the government? No, it’s about justice and stopping oppression.”
“This (story by the NST) is a smear campaign,” he said.
Masjaliza Hamzah from the CIJ told The Malaysian Insider that funding was a major issue for NGOs, as these organisations are constantly scrounging for funds.
“A lot of people who work at NGOs take pay cuts, because they believe in the cause, that it is important to build Malaysia’s democracy. You take this on knowing one day you may be labelled a ‘foreign agent’.
“NST should respond to that (on what they had meant by posting the story). CIJ has spoken up on media freedom, spoken of people being beaten up in Bersih. Are we speaking up for foreign institutions? If you make allegations you should back it with facts. NST, back up your claims.
“I cannot understand the stupidity this country can sink to,” said Masjaliza when referring to the allegations made by NST.
Bersih steering committee member Hishammuddin Rais told The Malaysian Insider that NGO finances have never been a secret.
He compared the foreign funding of NGOs to Malaysia conducting joint military exercises with the United States, which he suggested NST should also look into.
“All the Malays are (also) insisting that the money comes from ‘Yahudi’ (Israel), from the Jews. It is racist. Yes, it comes from NED, and George Soros, but there are also a lot of people who are Jews donating to NGOs. I think this is playing into very racial politics. We should call for a stop on this.”
Arumugam Kalimuthu from SUARAM called the NST report irresponsible and pointed out that his organisation receiving some funding from the US did not equate to trying to topple any government.