Malaysian Newspaper Forced to Shut Up

With national elections nearing, independent daily newspapering in Malaysia appears to be an endangered species with the recent purchase of the only unfettered English-language daily, The Sun, by controversial tycoon Vincent Tan, who reportedly has already begun to make distressing changes. Outspoken political editor Zainon Ahmad has been relegated to “consultant editor” and a new editor-in-chief, Chong Cheng Hai, replaced the respected Ho Kay Tat.

As an indication of how endangered the press is in Malaysia, the Bangkok-based Southeast Asian Press Alliance issued a statement on February 21 noting that two newspapers regarded as more critical than other mainstream media have not yet had their annual licenses renewed. Citing local sources, SEAPA said the two “have had to show a different slant after Parliament was dissolved on 13 February to make way for a general election on 8 March.”

Like all newspapers in Malaysia, the two, the Tamil-language Makkal Osai and the Chinese Oriental Daily, risk losing their licenses if they criticize the government too strongly. "We are concerned that the requirement for a publication permit has been effective in silencing critical voices and controlling any attempt for editorial independence,” SEAPA said in its statement.

A local political blog, Screenshots, edited by Jeff Ooi, reported that at a dinner on the eve of the Lunar New Year attended by Selangor Chief Minister Khir Toyo, a representative of the new owners of the Sun told staff that all criticism of Khir and his government had to stop, including instances of poor governance in Selangor State, the territory surrounding the Kuala Lumpur federal territory, and notably the suburbs of Petaling Jaya, Ampang Jaya and Subang Jaya.

The Sun’s deputy news editor and columnist R Nadeswaran told Asia Sentinel in a telephone interview: “No one is going to boss me around,” adding that as far as he knows there has been no change in editorial policy. However, he acknowledged that in a meeting with Khir, “accusations were thrown around” but declined to elaborate. He also said he has no plans to leave the paper.

Tan, a longtime crony of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, heads Berjaya Group, a corporate empire that includes a lottery and property development. Tan himself is at the center of Malaysia’s biggest judicial scandal since independence, in which a prominent lawyer, V K Lingam, was videotaped in conversation with the country’s third-highest ranking judge seeking to fix judicial appointees favorable to Tan. According to testimony at a Royal Commission looking into the scandal, Lingam also personally wrote a RM$10 million libel judgment in Tan’s favor when he was Tan's attorney in the case and had it delivered to the judge who read it in court. The Sun has reported fully on that issue as well, a least until now.

Tan bought the paper from Tong Kooi Ong, a businessman who founded and built one of the country’s most successful and innovative banks, PhileoAllied Bank. Tong retained control of The Edge, a business daily and weekly, and Ho remains editor of that publication. Tong is also regarded as a close associate of former deputy premier and finance minister Anwar Ibrahim, now the de facto leader of the country’s umbrella of opposition parties.

Since it changed hands, the tone of the paper, which has a daily circulation of about 265,000 copies, has become more mainstream. A recent front-page featured the embattled and scandal-scarred Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) leader S. Samy Vellu, who is also Public Works Minister and has been in the Malaysian cabinet for decades.

Media freedom in Malaysia has been a myth at least since Mahathir temporarily revoked the licenses of the English language Star and the leading Chinese daily, Sin Chew Jit Poh, in 1987. From then, the industry has toed the government line and shied away from reporting controversial issues. Publishers are caught in a tight spot because of the annual license renewal by the Ministry of Home Affairs. The Printing Presses and Publications Act also has draconian regulations on sedition that can be broadly interpreted. Generally, licenses can be revoked without room for review, and have been.

All of Malaysia’s mainstream media companies are controlled by components of the Barisan Nasional, the ruling coalition of ethnic political parties, either directly or through proxies. The United Malays National Organisation, the country’s largest party, which represents ethnic Malays and leads the coalition, owns the New Straits Times Press stable of newspapers through Media Prima Bhd. This includes the English-language New Straits Times and two Malay-language papers, Berita Harian and Harian Metro, and television stations TV3 and NTV7. The Malaysian Chinese Association owns The Star and Sin Chew Jit Poh through its investment arm, Huaren. The Malaysian Indian Congress owns the Tamil-language Nesan.

Under such a repressive environment, it’s a feat that The Sun rocked the boat at all. Nadeswaran exposed a series of dubious transactions inside the Selangor state government and a RM4.6 billion (US$1.42 billion) Port Klang Free Zone scandal, which implicated Transport Minister and MCA deputy president Chan Kong Choy as well as UMNO personalities. The paper has also given significant coverage to opposition parties, something they don’t get in the government-controlled press.

When Tan took control of the paper a few weeks ago, no one really blinked. Most observers expected the good times to end, especially with the general election coming. The only good side is that this time moderation has been bought with cash instead of harsh laws like the Internal Security Act, which allows persons deemed to be a threat to national security to be detained without trial. The act is often used to silence political dissidents.

Under Abdullah Badawi, the media has been more vocal than under Mahathir although newspapers and television are still constrained by their political ownsership. As a result, blogs and internet media have flourished. The online news portal Malaysiakini led the way in 1999 in the wake of the reformasi movement sparked by Anwar’s abrupt sacking and subsequent jailing on charges of sexual perversion and corruption, which were widely viewed as trumped up.

Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin frequently warns bloggers or attempts to discredit them. One, Nathaniel Tan, has been arrested and charged. After Tan was taken into police custody, friends and families could not contact or locate him for about seven hours. Two others are being sued for defamation by the NST and its editors. Although mostly a personal spat, some see the civil suit as intimidation aimed at silencing freedom of speech.