MIRI, SARAWAK, MALAYSIA – Timber company Samling and grassroots Indigenous organization SAVE Rivers were set to face off in the Miri High Court for the first hearing of a defamation trial today, 15 May 2023, but the judge adjourned the trial last week due to an urgent criminal case.
Despite this delay, community members gathered for a peaceful demonstration in support of SAVE Rivers on the steps of the High Court. These communities have raised concerns about Samling’s logging operations, which are the subject of the lawsuit. Through traditional Indigenous dancing and singing, they called on Samling to withdraw the suit and engage in meaningful dialogue with the communities.
This marks the fourth time the trial has been postponed; Samling requested one delay and the court has delayed the trial three times. The delay allows Samling to continue silencing SAVE Rivers while they wait for legal resolution.
“We are concerned that logging activities are still going on while the court case is being adjourned,” said Boyce Ngau, Vice-Chairman of the Gerenai Community Rights Action Committee (GCRAC) from Long Moh. “Free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) should not be a one-off thing and it should be a continuous process by any parties that want to operate in the area,” added Erang Ngang, from Long Tungan.
The Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders agreed that the suit may be classified as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP). SLAPPs are designed to muzzle civil society and journalists from voicing criticism and dissent, and corporations are increasingly using them worldwide to avoid accountability.
SAVE Rivers’ lawyer Simon Siah stresses the importance of freedom of expression: “I am sure that because of this case companies like Samling will do better in the future. Because of all this international pressure picking up, everyone is looking at us now. We will continue to fight on. We don’t know if they will withdraw the case or proceed, but we will go on.”
Civil society groups are standing in solidarity with SAVE Rivers against SLAPPs. Allies organized #StopTheSLAPP solidarity actions worldwide, including in Basel (Switzerland), Utrecht (Netherlands), Berkeley (USA), Tasmania (Australia), London, Liverpool, and Hertfordshire (UK). Recently, 160 NGOs sent a letter to Samling requesting the company to withdraw its abusive lawsuit. Over 19,000 people have signed a petition calling on Samling to drop the case, and more than 3,000 people have sent emails to Samling CEO Lawrence Chia asking him to withdraw the suit.
“There is a larger story here – if Samling gets away with silencing opposition, more and more companies will follow suit. This is about the democratic process and Indigenous rights in Sarawak,” said Jettie Word, Director of The Borneo Project.
Samling is seeking an apology, an injunction stopping SAVE Rivers from reporting community claims, and damages totaling RM5,000,000. The suit claims SAVE Rivers made several defamatory statements about the company between 2020 and 2021, questioning the sustainability of Samling’s logging operations in Sarawak and the certification process under the Malaysian Timber Certification Scheme (MTCS).