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Sarawak Indigenous NGO squeezed by defamation case, silenced from reporting alleged logging

  • For the fourth time, the hearing of a defamation suit filed by Malaysia-based timber company Samling against Indigenous rights group SAVE Rivers has been delayed.
  • According to the statement of claim filed by Samling plaintiffs, the case hinges on eight articles published on SAVE Rivers’ website between June 2020 and March 2021 involving allegations of illegal logging and a rush to gain sustainable forestry certification, which Samling says is untrue.
  • Last month, 160 organizations signed a letter describing this suit as a strategic litigation against public participation, or SLAPP case, noting that the fine — plaintiffs are asking for 5 million ringgit ($1.1 million) — would bankrupt SAVE Rivers.
  • The deferment of the trial comes days after the Forest Stewardship Council, an international organization that operates a certification scheme for sustainable forestry, said the company will be investigated for alleged violations of the council’s policies.

A court in the Malaysian state of Sarawak announced May 15 that it will delay the hearing of a defamation suit filed by a logging conglomerate against Indigenous-led environmental rights group SAVE Rivers.

In its announcement, officially released the same day the trial was scheduled to begin, the Miri High Court cited the need to prioritize an urgent criminal case as the reason for the delay. The case, filed by Malaysia-based timber company Samling, is now scheduled to start Sept. 18. This marks the fourth time the trial has been postponed, protracting the financial and legal pressure on Indigenous activists within and outside SAVE Rivers.

The deferment comes just days after the Forest Stewardship Council, an international organization that operates a certification scheme for sustainable forestry, said it had accepted a complaint against Samling’s forest concessions sent by a cohort of NGOs and would investigate alleged violations of the council’s policies.

Activists demonstrate outside the Miri High Court, where a defamation trial against Indigenous-led environment rights group SAVE Rivers was deferred for a fourth time. Image courtesy of The Borneo Project.

Though the adjournment of the case had been anticipated, roughly 45 Indigenous activists and other environmentalists showed up outside the High Court of Sabah and Sarawak in traditional clothes May 15, carrying signs saying “Stop the SLAPP” to voice their support for SAVE Rivers.

Komeok Joe, CEO of the Penan Indigenous rights organization Keruan, said he was frustrated by the case, noting that Samling — the biggest among the “Big Six” timber companies controlling almost three-quarters of the country’s forest concessions — was targeting Indigenous activists with limited resources.

“This is their tactic, to delay the case so that SAVE Rivers will feel discouraged and bore[d], and the effects [on their organization] maybe will make them give up,” Joe, who attended the rally, told Mongabay by phone.

However, he took the four delays, half of which were proposed by Samling, as a sign that the company would not be able to make a case against SAVE Rivers. He added that company representatives tried last year to get Penan community members to sign a letter supporting Samling’s defamatory statements, but all refused.

“Whatever tactics they take, SAVE Rivers has a strong community behind them; we also have many people who campaign in support around the world,” he said.

Activists in Basel, Switzerland, hold a demonstration in solidarity with SAVE Rivers, which is facing a defamation lawsuit from a Malaysian timber firm. Image courtesy of The Borneo Project.

The case hinges on eight articles published on SAVE Rivers’ website between June 2020 and March 2021, with two Samling subsidiaries serving as joint plaintiffs. The companies allege that SAVE Rivers wrote untrue statements about Samling’s efforts to gain Malaysia’s sustainable forestry certification for its forest management units (FMUs).

According to the statement of claim filed by the two plaintiff companies, SAVE Rivers wrote that Samling was conducting illegal logging in areas outside its concessions, had not adequately informed and consulted Indigenous residents who use the forest land about its activities and had rushed the Malaysian Timber Certification Council process during COVID-19 restriction periods so that it could evade higher community reporting standards.

The company is demanding total damages of 5 million ringgit ($1.1 million) from SAVE Rivers and its four directors, as well as restraining the defendants from writing anything that could be defamatory toward Samling in the future. In April, 160 organizations signed a letter describing this suit as a strategic litigation against public participation, or SLAPP case, noting that the fine alone would bankrupt the group and the individuals, according to its partners.

The U.N.’s special rapporteurs on human rights defenders and indigenous rights wrote a letter to the Malaysian government in October, stating that the suit against SAVE Rivers “may amount to an instance of … a SLAPP,” to which the Malaysian ambassador to the U.N. said the case was under due legal process.

Samling Group did not respond directly to questions, but instead shared a statement responding to an April 19 article posted by the NGO Bruno Manser Fund. In it, the company said it had fulfilled the requirements set by the Malaysian Timber Certification Council and received its approval, so the articles by SAVE Rivers “caused a lot of embarrassment and distress to Samling.”

The company also disputed the characterization of its defamation suit as a SLAPP, saying that it had tried to reach out to SAVE Rivers to amend articles. “It is disappointing that the civil society sought to stifle Samling’s rights to seek appropriate legal remedy in this manner, without properly appreciating the context that leads to the current position, in particular SAVE Rivers’ refusal to engage Samling on the accusations made,” the company said.

Samling Group logging trucks operating in the Upper Baram region of Sarawak in July 2018. Image by Fiona McAlpine/The Borneo Project.

Meanwhile, a joint press release from Bruno Manser Fund and The Borneo Project called the FSC decision to review Samling’s certification a “breakthrough for the communities’ struggle for justice,” noting that SAVE Rivers is facing defamation claims for raising points similar to the claims that the FSC will investigate.

The letter sent by FSC, dated May 10, said there was “sufficient evidence” to initiate an investigation into the company. The complaint alleges that Samling violated multiple FSC policies, including illegal logging or trade in wood, violation of traditional and human rights, destruction of areas of high conservation value, and significant conversion of forests to plantation or non-forest use. The next step for the FSC would be exploring options for “alternative dispute resolution,” the letter said.

Samling posted a response on May 12, saying it accepted the FSC’s decision, adding that the claims made by NGOs in the complaint were “unfounded.” It included in that statement that the company had “no choice” but to file a suit against an organization, referring to the SAVE Rivers defamation suit, “after exhausting all avenues to engage with the NGO in an attempt to clarify the misinformation and address allegations in an amicable manner.”

Jettie Word, executive director of the U.S.-based Borneo Project, which is supporting SAVE Rivers, said the defamation case has tremendously impacted SAVE Rivers’ ability to operate, as the organization had to devote time, staff and resources to taking the case.

“The huge impact on SAVE Rivers is a strain on time and resources; this suit has drained away a lot of money … and SAVE Rivers is already understaffed,” she said.

The organization has still managed some time to conduct research and meet with community members about Samling’s activities on traditional Penan and Kenyah Indigenous land, Word said, but they cannot publicize their findings while facing defamation claims.

“They’re still finding out everything that’s happening in the FMUs and logging areas and communities,” Word said. “We know what’s going on, but they were no longer able to publish that.”

Word said this case was a cut-and-dried example of SLAPP, adding that the case also has a chilling effect on other Indigenous activists and media, who fear Samling may file suit against them.

The company has said publicly that it was making efforts to take feedback from communities, but Word said this suit makes her doubt their intentions.

“If they really wanted to do a better job engaging with the communities, there are better ways to do that rather than suing civil society,” she said.

Malaysian timber giant Samling takes conflict over logging activity to court

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