Press Freedom In Malaysia, Not For The Fainthearted

The government's crackdowns take their toll in
the country's international press freedom ranking

Malaysia
(132) has suddenly found itself in the embarrassing position of being
sandwiched between Nigeria (131) and Chad (133) as the government’s
crackdowns on journalists, bloggers and activists take their toll in
the country’s international press freedom ranking.

The
2008 World Press Freedom Index, released last
Wednesday by Reporters Sans Frontiéres, downgraded the
Southeast Asian nation from 124th of 173 countries —
already hardly a vote of confidence — after "widespread social
and political demonstrations (in Malaysia) prompted the authorities
to harden their line towards the press," the press watchdog
organization said.

"The
internal security ministry, the bête noire of editorial
offices, imposed censorship on the most sensitive issues. A
journalist was physically assaulted for investigating leaders of an
Indian community party, close to the government," the report
noted.

The
country’s major media, all of which is owned by component
political parties of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, remains
under the tight control of the government. Repeated surveys of
political news stories have found them to be solidly biased in favor
of the government. However, a flock of angry and indefatigable
bloggers has surfaced to shred government credibility across a wide
range of issues. After disastrous results in the March 8 election
cost the ruling national coalition its two-thirds majority in the
parliament for the first time since Malaysia became an independent
country, members of the ruling coalition acknowledged the impact of
the bloggers and ordered all top politicians to start their own
blogs.

At
the same time, the government has intensified its crackdowns on
dissent, wielding the Internal Security Act, a colonial-era law to
quell the communist insurgency in the 1940s and 1950s that allows
detention without trial, to arrest two journalists, an opposition
federal lawmaker, Teresa Kok of the Democratic Action Party, and an
activist.

The
first journalist from the top Chinese-language daily, Sin Chew, was
held ostensibly for her own safety, according to the Home Minister
Syed Hamid Albar, but was released shortly after her arrest. Kok was
arrested for allegedly threatening Islam, the official religion in
the Muslim-majority country, but was also released.

The
third detainee, Raja Petra Kamarudin and the most indefatigable of
the bloggers, remains in jail. He was sentenced to two years in
prison under the Internal Security Act for articles that allegedly
challenged or "insulted" Islam. The 58-year-old editor of
the popular no-holds-barred political news site and a minor member of
the Selangor royalty forecast his fate in an interview to the British
Broadcasting Corporation a few weeks before his arrest.

Raja
Petra is also on trial for multiple charges of sedition and criminal
defamation on articles that he wrote on the gruesome 2006 murder of a
28-year-old Altantuya Shaariibuu, a Mongolian translator which sought
to implicate Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife, Rosmah
Mansor. Najib and Rosmah have vehemently denied the allegations but
Najib's close advisor and friend, Abdul Razak Baginda, and two
bodyguards under Najib's jurisdiction are on trial for the
murder.
{mospagebreak}

Although
government regulators ordered Malaysia Today blocked in August, Raja
Petra published the blog on a mirror site and creating new Internet
addresses in foreign countries. After he was jailed, his wife and
some colleagues have continued to publish, although daily numbers
have suffered badly.

In a separate case, the New York-based Committee to Protect
Journalists protested the arrest of of blogger Abdul Rashid Abu
Bakar, founder of the blog Penarik Beca, or Rickshaw Peddler,
who was taken into custody on August 7 by police for publishing a
digitally altered image of the national police insignia. In that
image, the CPJ reported, the tiger in the symbol was replaced with a
dog and the words “Allah” and “Mohammad” on
the symbol were replaced with “C4,” the explosive that
was used in Altantuya’s murder.  

More
recently, Cheng Lee Whee, an activist with The People's Voice of
Malaysia (SUARAM), was detained under the ISA for allegedly
disseminating a false report. She posted a comment on the police web
portal alleging that the police had used excessive force in evicting
squatters in Johor Bahru, the capital of the southern state of Johor
bordering Singapore.

Even
harmless antics like putting an image of the national flag upside
down on your blog can land you in trouble. The prolific blogger Syed
Azidi Syed Aziz of kickdefella.wordpress.com was arrested and is now
out on bail awaiting a possible sedition charge. He remains defiant
and argues that he meant no disrespect but the gesture to express his
view that the nation is in distress.

"Today
I knew they are looking for another Malaysian blogger who is still
flying the flag up-side down,” he wrote. “I too knew
those two persons are just victims of Prime Minister Abdullah’s
(Badawi) political survivor. I pray for them to be strong. This is
just the beginning for us, but rest assured that it is the end for
Abdullah!"

The strained atmosphere
in wake of the press crackdown showed up Tuesday when Wong Choon Mei,
an editor of the online news portal Malaysiakini, resigned over an
erroneous report describing a manifesto supposedly issued by Deputy
Prime Minister Najib Razak in his bid for the UMNO presidency.  
The online news portal said Wong uploaded the story before a second
editor vetted it, the standard procedure.  Wong, veteran
journalist, told Malaysiakini, "It is my fault and I stand ready
to take full responsibility and resign.”

The
government and Badawi's most vitriolic critic, however, is relatively
unscathed and left to lob his attacks from his blog, chedet.com. The
former premier, Mahathir Mohamad, is arguably the country's most
successful blogger, hitting more than a million unique viewers in
just one month. But being a powerful retired warlord of the United
Malays National Organisation -- the largest ethnic party, which
dominates the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional -- has it perks. He
appears to be exempted from the ISA despite making serious
allegations from corruption in the current run-up to party elections
in March and Badawi's son's business interests.

On
the other side fence, Theresa Kok, a three-term lawmaker, has sued
Utusan, the leading government-controlled Malay-language
daily, over an article that claims she was trying to ban the azan,
the Muslim call to prayer, and the author of a short story titled
“The New Politics Of The Honorable J (Politik Baru YB J in
Malay)” which was also published in the paper. She alleges
that the politician in the short story who was portrayed as
anti-Malay and anti-Islam is a reference to her. The story ends with
the character being assassinated, which Kok claims is tantamount to
inciting hatred towards her. The author has denied the story is
about Kok and says the characters represent "ideas,"

 

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