Five Australian journalists are being interrogated by Malaysian authorities who have accused them of sedition and defamation after the broadcast of a documentary about migrant workers in Kuala Lumpur during Covid-19.

A week after the broadcast of the Al Jazeera English documentary in Malaysia, the journalists were ordered to attend the police station for questioning on Friday morning.

Malaysian police have told them they are being investigated for sedition, defamation and violation of the country’s Communications and Multimedia Act.

Officials have also issued a search notice for a migrant who was interviewed during the documentary, prompting concern that he may be retaliated against. Earlier this week, the immigration department urged the public to come forward with information about the man.

The film documented immigration raids and migrants hiding from officials, events which were covered by the local and international media.

Since the broadcast of Locked Up in Malaysia’s Lockdown on 3 July the documentary team, who are almost all Australian, has been subjected to online abuse and death threats.

Local media and officials say the report was inaccurate, misleading and unfair.

Detention centres in Kuala Lumpur have become COVID-19 hotspots. @AJ101East asks if Malaysia’s migrant crackdown is putting lives at risk

Lawyer Hisyam Teh Poh Teik told reporters that the journalists “refute all the charges”.

“There was no intent by Al Jazeera to create any mischief,” he said.

Al Jazeera said: “Al Jazeera is deeply concerned that its staff are now subject to a police investigation.

“Charging journalists for doing their jobs is not the action of a democracy that values free speech. Journalism is not a crime.

“Al Jazeera also has grave concerns about the sustained online harassment its staff are facing. Reporters have been targeted with abusive messages and death threats.

“The personal details of current and former staff have been published online, in a serious breach of privacy which could potentially expose them to great risk both now and in the future.”

The 25-minute film, by the award-winning 101 East documentary strand, examined why Malaysia’s undocumented foreign migrant workers were at risk in the time of Covid-19.

Malaysian authorities were widely criticised for rounding up and detaining hundreds of undocumented migrants in May, through operations intended to control coronavirus. Police walked people through Kuala Lumpur in single file to a detention building, apparently to prevent undocumented migrants from travelling to other areas and spreading Covid-19. At the time, the UN said the move could push vulnerable groups into hiding and prevent them from seeking treatment.

Disease control or discrimination? @AJ101East investigates Malaysia’s crackdown on migrants during the COVID-19 pandemic:

Australia’s Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance has written to the Malaysian high commission urging it to drop the case.

“Since the broadcast, Al Jazeera personnel in Malaysia have been targeted in a sustained campaign of online abuse (‘trolling’),” the union said.

“They have received death threats and, in an extreme threat to their safety, they have been subjected to ‘doxing’ – the disclosure of their personnel details on social media platforms in order to enable and provoke further harassment, threats and intimidation. A source used in the story has even been pursued through the use of a ‘wanted’ notice.

“The documentary acknowledged Malaysia’s success in containing the Covid‐19 virus. The Al Jazeera crew repeatedly sought Malaysian government input and responses for inclusion in the news story but were repeatedly rebuffed. The documentary featured material that had been reported on by other media outlets, including the South China Morning Post.”

The Malaysian defence minister, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, called on Al Jazeera to apologise to Malaysians, saying allegations of racism and discrimination against undocumented migrants were untrue.

Rights groups have expressed alarm at an intensified crackdown on critical voices under the government of Muhyiddin Yassin, who was named prime minister by the king in March, following the collapse of the multiracial reformist coalition that had been elected two years earlier.

Over recent months, prominent journalists, NGO workers, opposition figures and members of the public have faced investigations or charges.

Among them is Steven Gan, editor of the online news platform Malaysiakini, who could face jail time for contempt of court charges over comments posted on the website by internet users, which were apparently critical of the judiciary. Shawn Crispin of the Committee to Protect Journalists said the trial, which begins next week, “reeks of a witch hunt”.

Legal experts have also criticised a decision by officials to investigate Boo Su-Lyn, editor of the health news portal CodeBlue, under the Official Secrets Act. A probe was launched after Boo Su-Lyn published the findings of an independent investigation into a hospital fire that killed six patients in 2016, which she says had been declassified.

Activists have also been pulled in for questioning by police, as have politicians. In one case, Hannah Yeoh, a former women, family and community development minister, was questioned after raised concerns over the new government’s commitment to tackling child marriage. She later said she had handed over her usernames and passwords to police.

Just last week, a 57-year-old man was fined around $470 for posting insulting remarks about the country’s health minister, despite the court noting that his comments were not malicious or excessive. He could face prison if he fails to pay the fine.

The increased use of the country’s notoriously broad laws – including the Sedition Act and the Communications and Multimedia Act – have added to fears that the country is returning to the repression of previous governments.

The Guardian has approached Malaysia’s high commission in Canberra for comment.

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