An UMNO-owned Newspaper Inflames Malaysia

A week ago, the Malay-language broadsheet Utusan Malaysia printed a story that is sending reverberations throughout an increasingly racially tense Malaysia, to the effect that Christian pastors were seeking to install a Christian prime minister who would change the country's official religion.

Although the story was ridiculous on the face of it, it has been given wide circulation and drawn considerable comment as well as a series of police reports filed in local stations. Malaysia's official religion, enshrined in the country's constitution, is Islam although other religions are guaranteed freedom of existence. Any attempt to change that would probably result in a racial conflagration that no sane individual in Malaysia would want.

According to the CIA World Factbook, ethnic Malays make up 50.4 percent of the population, more than double the population of Chinese with 23.7 percent, Indians at 7.1 percent, others 7.8 percent and indigenous races, primarily in East Malaysia, at 11 percent. Muslims account for 60.4 percent of the population, Buddhists 19.2 percent, Christians 9.1 percent and Hindus 6.2 percent.

Leaders of the Christian Federation of Malaysia, which represents several different religions met with Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak on Thursday to say the report was specious and to ask that Utusan's editors be disciplined for irresponsible reporting. Najib told local reporters he welcomed the church leaders' assurance that they were not seeking to make the country a Christian nation.

News reports gave no indication that Najib apologized to the church leaders for the newspaper's irresponsible reporting. Utusan Malaysia is owned by the party that Najib heads – the United Malays National Organization, the ethnic Malay party that leads the national governing coalition, the Barisan Nasional. Over recent months, the newspaper has become more strident in its racial reporting, earning it criticism from a wide variety of sources, particularly the opposition parties which it regularly excoriates.

The paper recently fired Hata Wahari, a longtime reporter at Utusan and the recently elected president of the Malaysian National Union of Journalists after filing eight charges against him for a variety of shortcomings. However, the charges were widely regarded as having been triggered by Hata's statements about the lack of freedom in the country's mainstream press and in particular Utusan Malaysia's pro-government, anti-opposition bias. Hata was the second national journalist's union head fired by the paper.

As with Utusan, the country's political parties own most of Malaysia's major dailies and television stations, in Malay, English, Chinese or Tamil languages. Utusan is just one of several newspapers controlled by UMNO. Although opposition parties own their own publications, they are under strict licensing rules that require renewal each year. While the mainstream press face the same restrictions, their ownership serves as an even bigger impediment to impartial journalism. The Internet largely supplies the country's only independent journalism, a fact that appears to account for fast-growing online readership.

Supposedly the demand to Christianize the country, reported by two pro-government bloggers according to Utusan Malaysia, was made at a meeting in which opposition lawmaker Jeff Ooi was present. However, according to critics, Utusan didn't bother to check the information. The blogs themselves didn't state how they learned of the report.

Press freedom organizations including the Center for Independent Journalism, Charter2000-Aliran, the Writers' Alliance for Media Independence and 1 Muted Malaysia all condemned the reports as irresponsible.

"Utusan Malaysia also did not offer an explanation for not naming these sources," the organizations said in an open letter. "The use of anonymous sources - usually, in consideration of the sources' safety - must be publicly justified. Notwithstanding this, Utusan Malaysia chose to run this as a front-page report, no less, and in so doing, gave the unverified story the credibility it did not deserve."

Further, the group said, "the front-page story only quoted Ooi denying the allegation that he had sponsored the meeting. The subjects of the allegation itself - the pastors who allegedly made this call - were not interviewed. The Christian meeting's organizers, which included the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship (NECF), had already denied the allegations of such a call being made in a statement published in the online media. Utusan Malaysia did not refer to this statement at all, nor was there any indication that any attempts were made to seek clarification from the pastors, NECF or any other Christian organizations."

Free Malaysia Today, a Kuala Lumpur-based blog, argued today that "The mainstream media, for as long as they pander to the government, enjoy immunity from public prosecution. But Utusan Malaysia has earned a special place within this untouchable clique simply by the virtue of being owned by UMNO. This privilege has spawned relentless attacks on the opposition and increasingly frequent inflammatory reports on race and religion. But while most urbanites can see right through Utusan Malaysia's thinly-veiled propaganda, its rural readership remains staunch believers.

The blog quoted Hata Wahiri as saying that the country should worry about the "slander" his former employer is producing, "because it is taking root in the rural areas. Kuala Lumpur and Selangor are multi-cultural and able to discuss Utusan's reports among themselves to seek clarification. But the rural community is predominantly Malay-Muslim. Who are they going to cross-check their facts with? Neither is there another Malay-language paper to counter Utusan's reports. The only media they are exposed to is government-owned media."

Hata warned that the newspaper is stoking racial flames and that "one day it will explode. I'm very afraid of that. If anything were to happen, it will begin in the rural areas." If it continues, he said, "another May 13" – the day in 1969 when the country exploded into race riots that took hundreds of lives – is likely.

"The fact that Utusan Malaysia is continuing to spin more stories from a completely unverified report implies mischief on their part," the press freedom organizations warned in their letter, "since there is a danger of various communities reacting further and inflaming an essentially emotive issue. Already, there are at least seven police reports lodged in response to what was mere rumor. Accuracy and verification are an integral part of journalism. Sources must be named as a measure of accountability on the part of both sources and journalists, and to allow readers to judge for themselves whether the information provided is true."