Radio Free Sarawak Receives World Media Honour

Peter John Jaban Interviewing on the ground
Peter John Jaban Interviewing on the ground

Peter John Jaban, the founder presenter of Radio Free Sarawak has been named by the NGO Reporters Without Borders as one of the world’s “100 Information Heroes” to be celebrated for their work on this year’s World Press Freedom Day, May 3rd.

The organisation, which campaigns for freedom of information, explains:

“Through their courageous work or activism, these “100 heroes” help to promote the freedom enshrined in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the freedom to “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” They put their ideals in the service of the common good. They serve as examples.” [Press Release, April 29th]

Peter John first started broadcasting with the fledgling radio station back in October 2010.  Radio Free Sarawak broadcasts out of London to avoid Malaysia’s oppressive licensing laws, which only give air space to the government run broadcaster RTM and stations which promote the ruling party.

The Chief Minister railed that RFS was a "naughty radio station!"
The Chief Minister railed that RFS was a “naughty radio station!”

Licensed broadcasters in Malaysia are even required by the government to employ full-time “News Controllers‘, whose role is to monitor all content and remove anything that might cause people to think ill of the ruling party, whether it is true or not.

Malaysia rates in the lowest category of media freedom on world indexes and has been sinking below even such oppressive neighbouring countries as Cambodia and Myanmar.

In 2014 Malaysia dropped two more points to 147 out of 180 countries rated by Reporters Without Borders.

Radio Free Sarawak set out to break the mode, broadcasting legitimately on shortwave from outside the country.

The Iban and Malay language station focuses on giving voice to rural communities, who have suffered numerous human rights abuses.  It also provides a platform for NGOs and opposition figures and campaigners, who are virtually excluded from the government controlled media.

With veteran reporter and RFS commentator Christina Suntai
With veteran reporter and RFS commentator Christina Suntai

Government and BN figures habitually refuse to take part in the nightly show and politicians from the ruling BN coalition have sought to portray the station as ‘seditious’ and against the state.

Numerous statements have been issued declaring that the increasingly popular radio show is a “virus” that is “poisoning the minds” of rural communities.

In 2011, when he as Home Minister, Hishammuddin Hussein (now of MH 370 fame) declared he would leave no stone unturned in order to discover a law that the station might be breaking, to legitimise legal steps against Malay citizens involved.

He has found none so far and instead the Malaysian authorities have resorted to regular, illegal jamming of the station – the most recent attacks having taken place over the past two weeks.

Brave Defiance

Symbol of defiance? Protestors against illegal land grabs - Note the RFS T-shirt.
Symbol of defiance? Protestors against illegal land grabs – Note the RFS T-shirt.

Against this background Peter John Jaban (who adopted the name Papa Orang Utan in deference to the symbolic animal under threat from the jungle destruction caused by state-sponsored logging) made the brave decision in 2011 to reveal his identity.

He then returned to Sarawak in 2012, where he continues to base himself, while defiantly continuing to take part in the broadcasting team that now hosts the show.

As a result he has faced restrictions on his passport and constant questioning and surveillance from Special Branch authorities.

He admits that the experience has been frightening and that he lives under fear of illegal arrest, but today he told Sarawak Report “we must be brave to tell the truth”:

“Knowing that I’m being watched by the Malaysian authorities does make me feel  insecure. But, then again, I’m not doing anything wrong, so what is the point of living in fear? They can do whatever they wish to me, as long as I know what I’m doing is right for the people and the country. I’m just doing my job, which is revealing the truth of what they are trying to hide. As we all know, the Malaysian government has never complied with the Declaration of Human Rights Agreement that they’ve signed up for and have never allowed freedom of speech, expression and information” he told Sarawak Report.

Stories they tell

Radio Free Sarawak and its wider team, most of whom remain anonymous, provides the only broadcast service that covers issues of indigenous rights from the point of view of the rural indigenous listener.

Today their lead story was the latest native land rights victory in a long-running case in Long Terawan, where loggers and palm oil companies have been harassing local communities and stealing their land.

After years of disputes the High Court has yet again ruled in favour of the community and against the state government of Abdul Taib Mahmud/ Adenan Satem.  However, with the local power-brokers refusing to amend their practices the problems of the rural folk are by no means nearer gaining justice.

Native Land Rights lawyer Abun Sui celebrates with the people of Long Terawan on the steps of the court at their victory over the state government backed logging companies.
Native Land Rights lawyer Abun Sui celebrates with the people of Long Terawan on the steps of the court at their victory over the state government backed logging companies.

This is how Reporters Without Borders have profiled Peter John Jaban and Radio Free Sarawak.

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Malaysia / Asia-Pacic Known by the pseudonym of “Papa Orang Utan,” Peter John Jaban is the voice of Radio Free Sarawak, a London-based shortwave radio station that broadcasts to local communities in the jungles of the Malaysian province of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. A member of Sarawak’s Iban community, Jaban already defied the authorities by turning his previous radio station into a forum for criticizing exploitation and expropriation of the native population by the associates of Sarawak’s billionaire chief minister Taib Mahmud. Radio Free Sarawak has to operate clandestinely in Sarawak, where the authorities regard it as “seditious,” jamming its broadcasts and hacking its website in an attempt to prevent it from spreading its “lies” and “poisoning the spirit of the people.” Since returning to Sarawak in 2012, Jaban has lived in constant fear of being arrested but that doesn’t stop him from commenting ironically: “I much appreciate the honour of this recognition, not least because it may be useful if I am arrested.”

Honour for a whole team

Peter numbers as one member of a courageous and hard-working team at RFS. He also is proud to have been honoured in Kalimantan with the bravery title Panglima, an honour bestowed by the Governor of the Pontianac region on behalf of the Majlis Dewan Adat Aayak (National Dayak Customary Council).

“I am very grateful and honored to receive this prestigious award, but I must say thank you to my comrades at RFS and our listeners for giving me moral support. Without all of them, I wouldn’t be a ‘hero’. As I put it, there’s no point in having a radio station with no listeners.  On the subject of fear I quote some local sayings:”Don’t show fear when you are brave and don’t pretend to be brave when you are afraid.” In Bahasa Malaysia, “Jangan takut takut kalau berani, jangan berani berani kalau takut.” Another one is “No fear when it is the truth” and in Bahasa Malaysia is “Berani kerana benar”, said Peter John Jaban on hearing about the honour.

Jaban added that he is convinced that Radio Free Sarawak is making the difference in bringing awareness and self-empowerment to rural people in defence of their rights. He said it should be allowed to continue its work to help make life better for Malaysia’s most downtrodden and exploited communities:

“Now, more people are aware of their rights, be it in land issue, human rights and the freedom to express their thoughts, I think it is fair to thank RFS for that. If RFS keeps on doing what they’re doing, I’m sure that we can bring change to Sarawak and even Malaysia in time.” 

Listening to RFS in Melikin
Listening to RFS in Melikin

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