Monday, 14 May 2012

'Penan incest' claim triggers anger at tabloid


COMMENT Metro Ahad, a tabloid newspaper linked to Umno through Media Prima, has raised angry calls for a boycott, following a disturbing May 13 story alleging that unnamed Sarawakian Penans practise incest.

NONEIn a report headlined Abang Kahwin Adik Sendiri (Brother is married to his own sister), reporter Hadzlan Hassan claimed that ‘investigations and research by the newspaper found that around 15 families in the (Ulu Baram) area live in a nomadic fashion although a longhouse has been provided for them, and have married blood relatives, in fact 10 couples married their own flesh and blood’.

There are several jarring details in Metro's succinct report. Despite splashing a large photo across its homepage with a caption "My mother is my wife, my father is my husband", it failed to set out the name of the village or its exact location.

The dateline reads ‘Ulu Baram’, but a photo caption mentions that the village lies in ‘Tinja’ (presumably Tinjar, since Hadzlan filed several other stories from the area).

The report published a photo of a young couple with their faces digitally disguised. The caption suggests that the couple had claimed they were married, but their faces look as if they are related. No details were provided.

The fundamentals of journalism were disregarded: there was no attempt to record names and ages of couples said to be living in incest, and no explanation of Metro's source for its 'estimate' of 15 involved families.

It provided no documentation of genealogy, no interviews with the chief of the village, academics or government officials. There was no mention of the reporter making a police report, although incest is a crime.

NONECommunity NGO organiser Muhim Urip has been working closely with the Penan for 15 years. He says incest has never been part of Penan culture. He was contemptuous of Hadzlan's assertion that ‘in the local community’, incest is ‘common’ because those ‘living in small groups as nomads had little choice in life partners’.

"That's ridiculous. Incest is not 'common' in any nomadic hunter-gatherer community, whether in Sarawak or worldwide," Muhim said.

"Penans marry between nomadic groups, and often uproot themselves to live with their spouses in new villages or in new nomadic groups.”

Hadzlan has not yet replied to requests for comments.

The remainder of Metro's coverage of the Penan of Baram amounted to powder puff pieces on government pledges to the Penan.

azlanThere was effusive praise for premier Najib Abdul Razak's promise to upgrade the decrepit Lapok Road to allow travel from Miri to parts of Baram (a promise still unmet a year after last April's state election campaign), and the prospects of a Bantuan Rakyat 1Malaysia windfall.

Another article mentions rumours that the Penan could make outsiders "disappear" in the forests. These outsiders, it said, included timber workers who made unwelcome approaches to Penan women.

This is an unrecognisable racial profile: the Penan are among the most shy, peaceful and gentle people in the country.

Such stories have certainly given greater weight to these rumours, than to the official government report that uncovered widespread rape and sexual abuse of Penan girls and women by loggers.

The official report, and subsequently the Penan Support Group report, exposed an atmosphere of lawlessness: powerful timber companies are being supported and protected by the state. Some loggers feel they can get away with rape - and they do.

Other questionable claims

Metro also suggested that incestuous marriages are one reason the Penan find it difficult to obtain a Mykad and other documentation.

Another reason, it claimed, was that ‘Indonesian Penans’ have infiltrated the state, so the National Registration Department (NRD) is wary of registering thousands of Penans without a Mykad.

But most Penan settlements that were established even before the formation of Malaysia find it difficult to obtain the document.

identity card mykad change of religion or faithReports by the Human Rights Commission state that the lack of the Mykad is caused by poverty and unequal access to NRD staff, and is an affront to the human rights of the Penan to obtain access to education and healthcare.

Social media reactions in Sarawak to the incest allegations included a flurry of hundreds of angry comments condemning Metro's "racism".

Its coverage of the Penan has now stirred up another controversy, following inaccurate reporting by the Umno-owned Utusan Malaysia and the New Straits Times on the Bersih 3.0 rally on April 28.

The Metro headline on the Penan, similar to those of its stable-mates on Bersih, may be aimed at papering over cracks in Umno's preparations for the looming 13th general election.

Umno's Sarawak BN partners are in real danger of losing the Baram parliamentary seat, the largest in the country, thanks to the hugely unpopular Baram Dam and allegations of graft against the incumbent Jacob Dungau Sagan, which he has denied.

International media attention has highlighted the disastrous effects of logging and plantations on the Penan, one of the most deprived ethnic groups in the country. Pro-government news stories, conversely, give the impression that the Penan are given sterling treatment, but are somehow manipulated by outsiders.

Metro's stories on the Penan appear to have crossed a line, and have upset Sarawakians of all races. The mainstream media's clumsy attempts at propaganda may now make BN's hold on the Baram parliamentary seat even more tenuous.

KERUAH USIT is a human rights activist - ‘anak Sarawak, bangsa Malaysia’.

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