Free Press Comments Put Malaysian Reporter in Hot Water

Utusan Malaysia, the flagship Malay-language newspaper of the United Malays National Organisation is seeking to fire Hata Wahari, one of its leading journalists, for defending the independence of the press and calling for moderation in reporting on Malaysia's tense race relations.

Hata, a 16-year veteran reporter with Utusan who was elected president of the country's National Union of Journalists in September, is expected to face a disciplinary hearing on Jan. 17 into charges that he tarnished the newspaper's image with statements he made calling for press freedom that he issued to independent media between Sept. 21 and Oct. 14 of last year.

The country's political parties own all of Malaysia's major dailies and television stations, in Malay, English, Chinese or Tamil*. Opposition parties also own their own publications. The Internet largely supplies the country's only independent journalism, a fact that appears to account for fast-growing online readership.

"I just issued a press statement asking the editors to please go back to our real function, to submit unbiased information to the public," Hata said in a telephone interview. “At the moment, Utusan is doing propaganda for the government. They have raised up racial issues, so that is why they are losing the trust of most of the community in Malaysia. Everybody, even the common public, feels the same way.

"We have to go back to our original mission, not act as a propaganda tool for the government," he told Asia Sentinel. “That is why I issued that statement. I feel I have the support of all of my friends, from the political parties and from other NGOs."

He said he would defend himself vigorously in the disciplinary hearing, partly because if he were to lose he would also lose his right to be the National Union of Journalists president. He is also president of the Confederation of Asean Journalists. “We will fight to the end," he added.

V. Anbalagan, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, called Utusan's claim that Hata had tarnished the organization's image with his public statements "ludicrous".

"Hata, in his capacity as NUJ president, issued the statements in defense of press freedom and the welfare of members," Anbalagan said in a prepared statement.

Under Malaysia's complicated labor laws, employers must first submit evidence to a disciplinary hearing. Any employee who feels he has been dismissed without cause can take it up with the Director General for Industrial Relations within 60 days, then a reconciliation proceeding must be held to see if a settlement can be arrived at. If not, the labor minister then must decide if the case should be referred to the Industrial Court for adjudication.

Once Malaysia's biggest-selling Malay-language daily, with a circulation of 250,000, Utusan has slumped to 170,000 per day and it is now the No. 6 paper in the country. The continuing loss of circulation, Hata said, stems from the paper's determination to act as a mouthpiece for UMNO and its inflammatory reporting on race and politics.

Certainly, the controversy over Hata hasn't slowed down Utusan's strident racial rhetoric. On Jan. 5, the paper raised the possibility that the state of Selangor, which is controlled by the opposition Democratic Action Party, which is predominantly Chinese, could possibly join Singapore as another "country belonging to China outside mainland China."

According to a translation by the website Malaysian Chronicle, assistant editor in chief Zaini Hassan asked in his column: "Do we Malays [already so few in the world] want to allow another country belonging to China or India outside their own lands? It should be enough with Singapore [a country belonging to China outside mainland China]. Do we also want to give away this homeland?"

In an interview shortly after he was elected NUJ president, Hata told the online publication Malaysiakini that Utusan had lost its way: "People no longer read it, because it is not relevant. If they want to be relevant, they must return to their origins," he said, adding that ultimately the public would give up reading the mainstream papers altogether.

In the interview, he cited what he called Utusan's irresponsible behaviour by daily headlining the news of a Christian preacher who allegedly delivered a speech insulting Islam in a church in Kuching in East Malaysia. Although other papers, including the UMNO-owned Berita Harian also carried the news, it was not given the prominence that the Utusan gave it, he said.

"They focus on stories of Malays disparaging other races, then they run stories of other races making insulting remarks of Malays," he told the website.

*Corrected