SAVE Rivers silenced indefinitely as lawsuit postponed for fourth time

Indigenous communities hold peaceful demonstration and global civil society stands in solidarity with SAVE Rivers as they face a defamation lawsuit

(MIRI/SARAWAK/MALAYSIA) Today, timber giant Samling and Indigenous grassroots organisation SAVE Rivers were scheduled to face off at the Miri High Court in Sarawak for the first hearing. Last week, however, the judge adjourned the trial because of an urgent criminal case. Nevertheless, community members showed up on the High Court steps for a peaceful demonstration in support of SAVE Rivers. These are the same communities whose concerns SAVE Rivers published and which became the subject of the lawsuit. With traditional Indigenous dancing and singing, they call on Samling to withdraw the suit and to instead engage in meaningful dialogue with the communities.

This is the fourth time that the defamation trial has been postponed: Samling requested a delay once, and the court has delayed the trial three times. The deferral of the trial allows Samling to keep 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” laments 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 Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP). SLAPPs are designed to muzzle civil society and journalists from voicing criticism and dissent. Corporations are increasingly using them around the world 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 stand united against SLAPPs and are showing strong solidarity with SAVE Rivers. Allies organised #StopTheSLAPP solidarity actions around the world, including in: Basel (Switzerland), Utrecht (Netherlands), Berkeley (USA), Tasmania (Australia), London, (UK), Liverpool (UK) and Hertfordshire (UK). A few weeks ago 160 NGOs sent a letter to Samling requesting the company to withdraw its abusive lawsuit. 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 to the sum of 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).

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