Trafficking in persons: Promote more in depth reporting and investigative journalism

Ucapan alu-aluan Ketua Pegawai Eksekutif MPI, Datuk Chamil Wariya pada Bengkel Pelaporan Tentang Pemerdagangan Orang di Kota Bharu pada 19 hingga 21 Februari 2013.

Terlebih dahulu izinkan saya menzahirkan penghargaan MPI kepada Tuan Yang Terutama Duta Besar Amerika Syarikat, YBhg Datuk Paul W. Jones, di atas kesudian beliau hadir pada pagi ini dan seterusnya melancarkan edisi ketiga Workshop On Reporting On Human Trafficking, anjuran bersama MPI, Kedutaan Amerika Syarikat dan Majlis Anti Pemerdagangan Manusia (MAPO), Kementerian Dalam Negeri Malaysia sebentar lagi. Terima kasih kepada pihak Kedutaan Amerika Syarikat dan juga MAPO kerana bersetuju untuk bekerjasama dengan MPI untuk menjayakan bengkel ini. Kepada Kedutaan Amerika Syarikat khususnya MPI merakamkan setinggi penghargaan di atas penajaan yang dihulurkan untuk merealisasikan program ini. Tentulah saya berharap kerjasama baik ini dapat diteruskan pada masa-masa depan – demi meningkatkan pengetahuan pengamal media berkaitan persoalan penghambaan manausia pada zaman moden ini.

Saya juga ingin mengambil kesempatan awal ini untuk mengucapkan selamat datang kepada para peserta bengkel yang akan menghabiskan dua setengah hari waktu mereka untuk mendekatkan diri mereka dengan isu-isu berkaitan pemerdagangan manusia – satu isu yang agak kompleks, tetapi perlu mereka fahami sekiranya mereka ingin melaporkan perkara itu dengan pendekatan yang cerdik kepada khalayak organisasi berita yang mereka wakili.

Ini adalah kali ketiga MPI, Kedutaan Amerika Syarikat dan MAPO berganding bahu untuk menganjurkan bengkel pemerdagangan manusia. Kali pertama diadakan pada 10 dan 11 November 2009 di Kuala Lumpur; kali kedua di Kota Kinabalu, Sabah pada 3 dan 4 Oktober 2011.

And I must say that since the first workshop was organised slightly more than three years ago, the local mainstream media have picked up the gravity of the issue and report more on the matter. I have scanned the local dailies and television on human trafficking and undoubtedly there is increased awareness – at least judging by space given to quotes from people in government. But of course more can be done to champion this issue of human trafficking, defined as the illegal trade of human beings mainly for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation or forced labour. Other purposes can be extraction of organs, or tissues or even surrogacy or ova removal.

As we know, Malaysia has been seen by various Human Rights groups as a destination and to a lesser extent, a source and transit country for women and children subjected to trafficking in persons. The main purpose, according to them, is forced prostitution and for men, women, and children who are in conditions of forced labour.

At the onset I want to point out that as news organisations, we have a large role to play in mobilizing public support and involvement to help prevent and combat trafficking. Due to its reach and ability to mould public opinion, media –old and new – are a powerful tool of social change.

However, media publicity should take into consideration the right approach and ensure that there is no violation of the rights of the victims and survivors. So, there is a need to develop minimum standards for the media.

In my view, media coverage should not be limited to police and municipal council enforcement officers’ raids on illegal establishments. If we confined ourselves to that nature of news reporting, the portrayal is that of the foreigners arrested as being the GROs or prostitutes, while very little is said of who were behind the organised crime syndicates responsible for their misery.

We must do more especially to promote in-depth reporting or investigative journalism on the issue. Even open public debate and forum on the very serious injustices must be encouraged. To look for incisive and no-holds barred accounts of such miserable existence, we would have to meet with the non-governmental bodies who were left to investigate and aid the victims. However, very little of this get in the mainstream news.

If the local media are convinced of the importance of the issue, here are some pointers. Firstly, journalists who are committed to exposing Human Trafficking should know the relevant laws. Handbooks are available for reporters issued by the Home Ministry through the Police. NGOs also have compiled those laws for reference.

Secondly, expose the real problem. By writing an article or airing a segment focusing on trafficking in persons, the media not only educates the public, but also shines a light on an issue which many Malaysians know little about.

Thirdly, do an investigative piece if you discover misuse of power by our law enforcers. Don’t let the foreign media get to it before you do, because once the news gets to the international stage, it could be very embarrassing for the country. It would be more impressive if our own media exposes the irregularities rather than the foreign news agencies shame the country.

Fourthly, provide a help-line or phone numbers for the public to give tip-offs. Often, the information is given on condition of anonymity, understandably given the fact that whistle blowers fear for their own safety. Check out the information by all means before publishing the story. Get assistance from NGOs who will be able to give access to victims. Do not just rely on official sources for information.

Fifthly, shame the perpetrators. Identify traffickers and protect the victims. Too often the victims become the villains, like what we are seeing now in the News. If necessary use assumed names for the victims and cover their faces if they are willing to speak in front of camera. They don’t deserve to be hunted down again but they deserve to have their story told. Therefore, have empathy for the victims, even if they had become an offender. What we are seeing in the local news is that the criminals are only the migrant workers who work in vice. Almost nothing is said about the people who organise the racketeering.

Sixthly , above all – this might sound obvious – tell the truth. I think some media outlets treat such reports with sensationalism and hype at the expense of truth. This is not acceptable.

And last but not least be balanced and objective.

In other words, the News media have to think outside the box and get their own stories; something that goes beyond press conferences and press releases. Don’t be shy to talk to NGO’s who are in the front line in dealing with trafficking in person. But of course don’t take their words as absolute truth. The media can easily vet the sources and zero in on those who come up with the most accurate data, evidence and victims’ testimonies. Getting the information straight from the horses’ mouth is more compelling and convincing than quotes or sound-bites from officials.

On its part, the Malaysian government too must do more to improve its standing vis-a-vis other countries in combating trafficking in person. For 2012, as in 2011, Malaysia has been placed on a Tier Two Watch List by the United States. Tier Two means that Malaysia is a destination for human trafficking, while less so as a source and transit point. We are on par with many developing and developed countries such as Malawi, Kenya, Jordan and even Japan. Not bad you might say. But this not good enough. Malaysia must improve its position to Tier One or even better. This can be done by taking stringent measures to punish human traffickers via tough law enforcement.

According to the State Department 2012 Report, and I quote,

The Government of Malaysia made insufficient overall progress in addressing human trafficking through law enforcement means during the reporting period. While it continued to prosecute and convict sex trafficking offenders, it did not demonstrate progress in its efforts to punish those who exploit others for forced labor. Malaysian law prohibits all forms of human trafficking through its 2010 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act (amended), which prescribes penalties that are commensurate with those prescribed for other serious offenses, such as rape.

It is clear to me, at least, that the Obama administration still took a dim view of the human trafficking in Malaysia. It went on to say,

“ Poor government treatment of identified trafficking victims and the lack of victim protection or incentives for victim assistance in investigations and prosecutions remained a significant impediment to successful prosecutions. As in previous years, NGOs reported referring cases of alleged labor and sex trafficking to the government but believed that in many instances authorities did not investigate these allegations. NGOs reported that the police and Labor Department officials often failed to investigate complaints of confiscation of passports and travel documents or withholding of wages – especially involving domestic workers – as possible trafficking offenses, and that front-line officers’ failure to recognize indicators of trafficking regularly led them to treat these cases as immigration violations. “

Not only the latest state department report implied that things had not changed much since 2011.The international NGO Human Rights Watch, holds a similar view of Malaysia. HRW says Malaysia’s promise in 2012 of the protection of civil rights fell short in practice.

According to HRW’s Malaysian chapter, anti-trafficking efforts conflate human trafficking with people smuggling, and punishes rather than protects trafficking victims. It said they are held in inadequate, locked shelters that resemble detention centers rather than care facilities.

Now I would caution anyone to just accept as truth anything that comes from outside Malaysia. Remember, there are many other reports of world rankings in reputable newspapers in the West that show Malaysia in a more favourable light.

The government must respond to the good as well as the bad with an even hand. Be balanced and cautious. Don’t reject outright bad reports while celebrating international rankings that overly praise Malaysia. Be moderate, cautious and balanced in responses when seeing the various kinds of reports in foreign news wires. After all, no nation on earth is perfect.

Take action when necessary, and fast! There is nothing as bad as when you are accused of deliberately dragging your feet. The government must not only be seen to be doing something, but must also actually do it. Those in power should not wait until the perceptions take over from the facts completely. If they do, then the credibility of the government would be called in question.

Step up  law enforcement actions under the anti-trafficking law, particularly labor trafficking cases. We have enough laws to cover all the relavant bases; it’s just not enough of the enforcement. Apply stringent criminal penalties to thoseinvolved in fraudulent labor recruitment or forced labor.

We should increase efforts to investigate – and prosecute and punish, asappropriate – reports of public officials who may profit fromtrafficking or who may exploit victims. We already have sufficeint procedures to identify labor trafficking victims. Don’t let the ramifications of this modern-day slavery become more serious.

My appeal to both the journalists and the government officials is this:  your efforts  to create awareness and to protect the plights of these unfortunate souls cannot fully manifest until the ‘human-sentiment’ is realized within. The duty to help these individuals cannot be just if it is simply an assignment in fulfilling a task assigned by your superior or merely reacting to external pressures from a foreign ranking-body.

The proof of understanding on the  seriousness of human trafficking is to know that they are people out there in desperate need of our help. And only hearts that care have the necessary endurance to reach out consistently to those in need.

Akhir sekali, saya ingin mengambil kesempatan untuk sekali lagi untuk merakamkan penghargaan kepada semua pihak kerana telah bekerja keras dan bertungkus lumus terutamanya kepada agensi-agensi kerajaan untuk menjayakan bengkel ini. Kepada para peserta saya berharap mereka akan menggunakan peluang ini untuk meningkatkan pemahaman mereka tentang isu-isu berkaitan pemerdagangan manusia.

Dan sekarang saya dengan sukacitanya menjemput Tuan Yang Terutama,YBhg Datuk Paul Jones untuk menyampaikan sepatah dua kata dan seterusnya merasmikan dan melancarkan bengkel ini. Dipersilakan.

Terima kasih.