The team from the independent Iban language radio show Radio Free Sarawak (RFS) have won recognition in Australia, with a key award from the University of Queensland in Brisbane.
The Communication for Social Change Award 2014 was designated by the university’s Centre for Communication and Social Change to the organisation as a whole.
The other winner in the individual category went to a photo-journalist working in Afghanistan, Barat Ali Batoor.
The RFS team, who work mainly incognito in order to avoid harassment from the authorities in Sarawak, were delighted and cheered by the news:
“We have been struggling against persistent attempts to jam our show over the past weeks, which is an illegal interference of our right to broadcast. People in Sarawak have a right to choose alternative media to the relentless propaganda on the government controlled channels. There are legitimate dissenting voices against the programme of so-called development being put forward for Sarawak by Taib Mahmud and the state government and there are issues of corruption and human rights abuses that ought to be addressed. We provide a platform for ordinary folk to have their say on this show about the enormous changes being forced upon them and we provide a rare opportunity for elected opposition politicians in Malaysia to be heard as well” says the programme founder, London based Clare Rewcastle Brown.
This is the second recognition of the work of Radio Free Sarawak in less than a month.
On World Press Freedom Day, May 3rd, one of the station’s DJ’s Peter John Jaban, was nominated one of the worlds ‘100 Information Heroes’ by the NGO, Reporters Without Borders.
Jaban, who has publicly acknowledged his involvement in the show, paid tribute to the team of determined broadcasters, who have kept the project going for the past 4 years and to the radio station’s key supporters around the world.
The nightly show is targeted at Sarawak’s indigenous rural communities, who have been confronted by industrial scale logging on their traditional forest lands and also land grabs for oil palm plantations.
The latest and most devastating threat for up to a quarter of the mainly riverine communities is the plan to build a series of 12 mega-dams across Sarawak’s river system, which will displace tens of thousands of native people.
This weekend the Radio station took part in a public exhibition in Miri with a stall to advertise the station to local folk. The broadcast regularly brings news on land conflicts and court cases, which are suppressed in the mainstream media. It also provides a platform for NGOs and the discussion of human rights issues in the state.
A ‘virus’ that ‘poisons the minds of the people’?
The broadcast, which has developed a powerful following amongst native communities, has been condemned by local and national politicians, who have sought to accuse the broadcasters of illegal activity.
When Home Minister, Hishammuddin Hussein (of MH 370 fame) announced he would “leave no stone unturned” to discover crimes against the radio station:
”This is not about politics. This is about spreading malicious lies, the issue of unity and harmony among the races”, he said.
However, Hishammuddin was unable to find sufficient evidence under the stones he turned and prosecutions never resulted.
Likewise, the Sibuti MP Ahmad Lai Bujang is one of a number of local BN politicians who have likened RFS to a virus which must be avoided by the people:
“This is because the radio is meant to mislead its listeners by disseminating false information and spreading malicious lies that could jeopardise racial unity and harmony”, he claimed.
It has been pointed out that such words imply an accusation of ‘sedition’, a serious crime that carries a punishment of years of imprisonment and it has forced the broadcasters to conduct their legitimate right to freedom of expression clandestinely to avoid harassment.
The criticism has continued relentlessly, indicating that ruling politicians find themselves threatened by an independent source of information which they cannot control.
Another BN minister Douglas Uggah has called Radio Free Sarawak poison. And the Deputy Information, Communications and Culture Minister, Joseph Salang Gandum announced, in reply to a parliamentary question:
”We know that several Sarawakians are involved in the broadcast and are liable to legal action”
The BN Assemblyman, the wealthy young Snowdon Lawan, son of a key crony of Taib himself, also spoke out saying the state government should monitor activities by Radio Free Sarawak, because it was a pro opposition independent radio station “known to manipulate facts for the opposition’s political mileage in the upcoming general election”.
The Malaysian authorities have been clearly connected to persistent jamming of the radio station and cyber-attacks against its website at regular intervals over the past four years, particularly during election periods.
Emerging frontier – communicating change
The accolade from Queensland University is a powerful academic endorsement for the Radio Station, which has been the butt of so much virulent criticism from politicians in the ruling BN coalition in Malaysia.
The Centre for Communication and Social Change CfCSC is based at the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Queensland, one of Australia’s premier learning and research institutions. It was established in 2007 and is the only specialised centre in this field, in Australia.
“Our Centre is staffed by experienced researchers and practitioners who have global expertise in development and communication matters, including with the UN, NGOs and government institutions…. Communication for social change is an emerging frontier, the goal of which is to use communication processes, techniques and media to facilitate social, economic and technological development. The underpinning philosophy of CSC is that communication is not simply about transferring information and sending messages, but rather about listening, responding to, and helping people give direction to their own change, and supporting enabling environments for this change to take place.”[Centre for Communication and Social Change]
Malaysia has one of the lowest ratings in the world’s media freedom indexes. The government has regulated to ban all forms of criticism from the licensed broadcast media and is quick to charge challengers with ‘sedition’ for undermining the reputation of the governing party.
RFS, however, broadcasts on shortwave from outside of the state and via the internet and is therefore not subject to such rules. The station is a sister project to Sarawak Report.