Nigel Aw, Sean Ho, Goh Wee Kee, Koh Jun Lin, Zikri Kamarulzaman, Aidila Razak, Lee Long Hui, Yap Jia Hee
This is an analysis of how deaths in Malaysian police custody are reported. We compared 15 years of official police statistics with data collected by a human rights organisation, Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram). Suaram is the sole and most comprehensive tracker of publicised deaths in police custody in the country. Its data comprises almost two decades worth of custodial deaths data which was reported either to the organisation or by the media. We found that overall, deaths in Malaysian police custody are underreported, with one in four deaths being reported to the media or to Suaram. This means beyond the immediate family of a victim, the remaining deaths only becomes public knowledge much later, when queries are made in Parliament. There is also an ethnic discrepancy - Malay deaths are twice as high as Indian deaths, but three times less likely to be publicised. To understand the reasons for this, we interviewed the national Human Rights Commission and a human rights lawyer. By shedding light on this issue, we show that deaths in police custody are more prevalent than what the public might otherwise perceive from media reports. We also highlight the important role that families of victims play in holding the police accountable and pushing for investigations into the deaths. We also encourage Malaysians to re-evaluate a long-held stereotype that Indian Malaysians are the most likely to die in police custody. To increase the reach and utility of our project, we also created an interactive news game and a guide on what to do if one is arrested, both of which accompany the main article. The project has been translated fully into Mandarin and partially into Malay, in order to reach a wider audience in Malaysia.
What makes this project innovative?
This is the first in-depth data-driven analysis of Malaysian deaths in police custody conducted by a Malaysian media organisation. Secondly, the accompanying news game takes an innovative approach towards educating people on their rights in custody and helping them empathise with the stories of victims. The game puts players in the shoes of a friend who is entangled in a custodial dilemma between a victim and the police. Along the way, there are fact boxes that teach players about their rights in custody. The real-life case that the game is based on is revealed at the end of the game. Thirdly, we took a mobile-first approach to the project and, in particular, the game. Both were created primarily with mobile users in mind, as 80% of our audience accesses our articles on mobile. We have also included features such as a mobile landing page, and the option of sharing the page on Whatsapp, both of which are not available in the desktop version. Fourthly, the microsite we set up for the project will enable us to turn this into a long-term initiative to examine issues related to deaths in Malaysian police custody.
What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?
The English microsite was launched on 5 March 2018, with the Mandarin microsite being launched 11 days later on 16 March 2018. It was promoted on our main Malaysiakini website through banners and article previews that directed readers to the microsite. We launched a social media campaign that involved creating a cover photo promoting the project on the Facebook page of Malaysiakini (English version), and publishing graphics that featured quotes from the article. We also used the iPhone Screen Recording tool to make a trailer of the game, which in total received 11,000 views on Facebook. In its first two weeks (March 5-18), the microsite received 37,589 page views, with 10,797 unique visitors. The game was played 11,972 times, with 4,037 times being replays. Based on these statistics, one out of three people who play the interactive game replay it. The game also seems to be the most popular way to attract users to our site, with 61% of new users entering our site through it. The site and game were shared online by Members of Parliament such as Kasthuri Patto, who has previously questioned the Home Minister on data for deaths in police custody. It was also tweeted by key investigatory bodies such as the Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission and the Malaysian Human Rights Commission.
Source and methodology
Human rights organisation Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) gave us access to their database on publicised deaths in custody. We retrieved official data for deaths in police custody from the Sinar Project database for parliamentary documents. Sinar Project is an open data initiative that has made Malaysian parliamentary written replies available online. There is no official definition of deaths in police custody from the Home Ministry. As such, our definition of deaths in police custody is based on the 2016 Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) report on the topic - that is, “death that occurs during arrest by police, police detention, or when individuals under police custody are on their way to receive treatment at health premises, or at health premises for cases that require admittance to wards”. Suhakam has applied that definition to the official data on deaths in police custody. Next, when cleaning the Suaram data, we excluded custodial deaths that took place in prison and detention centres, as these fall under different departments other than the police. We decided to use cases from 2002 to 2016 as the period of comparison between official and Suaram data, because the Suaram data starts from 2002, and its collection of 2017 data was not ready in time for our analysis. We verified the Suaram data by checking the external links to media reports and NGO reports provided by Suaram for each case. Unfortunately, we were unable to verify official police figures from the Home Ministry as they do not supply the details of individual cases. Lastly, this project was created in conjunction with a series of data journalism workshops organised last year by the French government’s media development agency, Canal France International, as part of its 4M Asia initiative.