By Raphael Wong | The Star

Tenaganita Sdn Bhd director Irene Fernandez was sentenced to 12 months’ jail after a magistrate’s court found her guilty of maliciously publishing false news about eight years ago. 

However, magistrate Juliana Mohamad allowed Fernandez a stay of execution after defence counsel Edmund Bon gave an undertaking that an appeal would be filed today.  

She released Fernandez on a RM3,000 bail — the sum initially posted by her husband, Joseph Paul, when she was first charged with the offence on March 18, 1996. 

Juliana, in passing sentence, said she had taken into consideration the important role carried out by Fernandez and her sacrifices, noting that she was also a mother, who was needed by her children. 

“However, the offence committed cannot be regarded lightly as it had tarnished the country’s image,” she said when refusing to grant Fernandez a binding over order. 

Fernandez was convicted of maliciously publishing a memorandum entitled Abuse, Torture, and Dehumanised Treatment of Migrant Workers at Detention Camps, which contained 16 statements that were found to be false. 

She had committed the offence at Tenaganita’s office at No. 28C, Lorong Bunus Enam, off Jalan Masjid India, here, on Aug 25, 1995.

FREE FOR NOW: Fernandez being surrounded by her supporters after she left the magistrate’s court in Kuala Lumpur yesterday. She was found guilty of maliciously publishing false news.

Juliana said she found that the prosecution had proven beyond a reasonable doubt on three elements to convict Fernandez. 

The three elements were the publication of the news, that the news was false, and a malicious intention when publishing the news. 

Juliana said the prosecution, through its witnesses, had successfully established Fernandez as the publisher of the news. 

The magistrate, in finding that all 16 statements in the memorandum were false, said she felt the evidence given by the prosecution was more reasonable as opposed to that of the defence. 

However, she said that from the defence’s evidence, she found a possibility that corruption had taken place at the Semenyih detention camp between a personnel named Tiger and a detainee but the statement in the memorandum had implicated everyone starting from the lowest-ranking personnel right up to the commandant. 

On the issue of malicious intention, Juliana said that under section 8A(1) of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, the onus was on an accused to rebut the presumption, which the defence had failed to accomplish. 

“I find that the accused (Fernandez), through her testimony, had made no attempt to verify the facts in the memorandum besides the tone of her voice reveals a biasness and prejudice against the authorities,” she said. 

During mitigation, Fernandez urged the court to recognised her responsibility to Tenaganita, which aimed at protecting and promoting migrant workers and women, especially those in the plantation sector, as well as those who were trafficked and forced into prostitution. 

However, DPP Stanley Augustin pressed the court to deliver a deterrent sentence as a lesson to Fernandez and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to ensure that they published what was factual and not hearsay.  

“From her background, it can be concluded that the accused is a capable person and should set an example to the youths of this country on her struggle. Instead, with her influential position as Tenaganita director, she had taken the opportunity to publish baseless false news,” he said. 

Among those present in court were Parti Keadilan Nasional vice-president Tian Chua and its youth chief Mohamad Ezam Mohd Noor, representatives from several NGOs, foreign press journalists and a US Embassy officer. 

Outside the courtroom, about 50 supporters clapped and chanted Suara Rakyat as Fernandez walked out of the courtroom.