Death Behind Bars – The forgotten faces who succumbed to brutality

Country/area: Malaysia

Organisation: Malaysiakini

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 10/12/2021

Credit: Ooi Choon Nam, Lee Long Hui, Martin Vengadesan, Yan Jing Tian, Syariman Badrulzaman, Wong Weng Loon, Yasmin Ramlan


The project is presented by Kini News Lab in Malaysiakini, one of the most-read news portals in Malaysia.

At Kini News Lab, we experiment with new ways of presenting news by combining visual and interactive storytelling as well as in-depth and data-driven journalism.

We aspire to turn important but complex issues into something that is engaging and enjoyable for the Malaysian public.

Project description:

There have been many incidents of deaths in police custody stretching back at least two decades. The idea was to remind the public just how many Malaysians have died as a result of violence or neglicence and how nobody is held accountable for the vast majority of cases. It took the form of a virtual graveyard.

Impact reached:

The virtual graveyard was published on International Human Rights Day to some significant acclaim. It comes at a critical time when the government is looking at resurrecting the bill to govern a body for independent complaints about police misconduct.

The government also just announced that a special investigative unit would be formed to probe custodial deaths.

Malaysiakini’s project had an impact with veteran activists who were both touched and angered by the sheer loss of life and promised to continue the struggle.

It also touched a chord with younger Malaysians who were previously unaware of the extent of these human rights violations. They said that the interactive presentation of revealing the gruesome and sad details was very powerful.

Techniques/technologies used:

The list of the deceased was provided by human rights organisation Suaram. The list is the sole and most comprehensive tracker of publicised deaths in police custody in the country spanning over 20 years.

We managed the data, including translation to different languages, on a Google Spreadsheet.

A special website is created for the project. Its structure and layout were built with JavaScript, JavaScript library React and React framework Next.js.

JavaScript library Scollama.js was used for the storytelling effect on the victims’ stories and the charts. The charts were built with Highcharts API.

The tombstone and all the illustrations were illustrated with Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator.

What was the hardest part of this project?

Retrieving data was particularly difficult as a majority of cases had some important detail left out. We were often not able to secure photographs and very rarely got complete information as to the cause of death, time of death and nature of the original offence for which they were held.

While human rights organisations and the media have access to some information it must be acknowledged that most of it is being held by the police themselves. They almost certainly have a conflict of interest in this particular topic and that is a factor addressed in the project itself.

The numbers themselves were consistently inconsistent because there are a number of different ways in which custodial deaths can be recorded or ignored by the system.

Some of the pictures available might also be deemed too graphic and yet the need to convey the horror of what was experienced by the victims was also there.

What can others learn from this project?

Other journalists might look to this project as a way to relate a serious issue to their readers. 

There are a number of challenges, firstly being that there are many articles on individual news items but few that provide an overarching analysis and view of the bigger picture.

We also attempted to repackage a long-standing and persistent issue in a creative and engaging way to reach readers who might otherwise be unaware of the magnitude of the issue.

Project links: