Malaysia's One-Two Punch for Journalism
Malaysia suffered two ominous blows to independent journalism last week, one with the announcement that the government is about to formulate a sedition law to cover bloggers, who are fast becoming some of the most independent news providers in Malaysia.
The second was the suspension of the National Union of Journalists President Hata Wahari from his job at the Malay-language daily Utusan Malaysia, one of several newspapers controlled by the United Malays National Organization, the country's biggest political party, for advocating an impartial press.
Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia's Home Affairs Minister, announced on Jan. 13 that the federal government will write guidelines to define "online sedition," a move which critics say is an overt attempt at cyberspace censorship.
"On a whole, officers from the home ministry, PM's department and the information ministry have agreed on the contents of the guidelines," Hishammuddin said in a prepared statement, adding that seditious items are expected to include "malicious news," pornography, false information and other cyber crimes.
No one knows just what will be in the new law. "We actually have no clue at this point, the government has not even had a public airing, there has been no consultation with the press itself," said Chuah Siew Eng, program officer for the Center for Independent Journalism in Kuala Lumpur. "We can only rely on news reports. There is no freedom of information law that would force them to divulge what is in it."
"What we're seeing in Malaysia is part of a much longer-term trend," said Bob Dietz, Asia Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. "The country never really emerged from the Mahathir years in the same way, say, that Indonesia had from Suharto. As Internet activity has grown the people in power – UMNO – have had to distance themselves from Mahathir's promise not to interfere with online activity. Frankly, resorting to sedition charges to control press activity – traditional or digital – is a tactic we regularly see in other countries where the government is straining to stay in power."
Other critics were quick to point out that Malaysia's existing sedition law, a holdover from British colonial Malaya in 1948, has already been used on bloggers. Chuah Siew Eng pointed out the government threatened sedition charges against bloggers who insulted the memory of the late Sultan of Johor. Last year, authorities also threatened sedition charges against Asia Sentinel for critical reporting on the country but never followed through.
However, many observers agree that a main target is Raja Petra Kamarudin, the irrepressible editor of the online publication Malaysia Today, who fled the country ahead of charges of criminal libel and sedition for, among other things, suggesting incorrectly that Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak's wife Rosmah Mansour was present at the murder of Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibuu in 2006. Two of Najib's bodyguards were convicted of the murder and, although one confessed that they were to be paid RM100,000 to kill the woman, no attempt was ever made to find out who was going to pay them.
"I think there is no reason for such a law," said Tony Pua, an opposition Democratic Action Party Member of Parliament and prominent blogger, in a telephone interview. "Existing laws are very easy to use, broad and nonspecific. The sedition act itself should be repealed or substantially reduced in terms of scope."
That seems unlikely to happen. In particular, Malaysia's growing legions of bloggers played a major role in the relative drubbing that the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition took in national elections in 2008, winning only 51.1 percent of the popular vote and running behind the three opposition parties on the mainland. It lost the three most urbanized and industrialized states – Perak, Penang and Selangor but was saved partly by gerrymandered constituencies long-rigged in its favor, and partly by Sabah and Sarawak, which voted solidly for the status quo. For the first time since independence, the Barisan lost its two-thirds lock on the Dewan Rakyat, or parliament.
As to Hata, the Utusan Malaysia reporter, on Jan. 11, the Malay-language daily informed the veteran reporter that he would be suspended until the completion of an investigation into charges that he had tarnished the newspaper with statements he made to independent media last year calling for press freedom. He has criticised Utusan several times for publishing pro-Umno propaganda and blamed its editorial policy for the dwindling circulation of the UMNO flagship paper, which once boasted the highest daily circulation in Malaysia but has now fallen to sixth.
He faces eight counts of misconduct for issuing statements to news portals and is expected to face a disciplinary hearing on Jan. 17 and, say other reporters, is likely to be fired.
A 16-year veteran reporter with Utusan, Hata was elected president of the country's National Union of Journalists in September. If he is sacked, he would be the third Utusan employee to lose his job because of his activity with the journalist union. Former NUJ president Yazid Othman and NUJ-Utusan Malaysia chairperson Amran Ahmad were also dismissed earlier. If he loses in disciplinary hearing on Jan. 17, he will also be forced to give up the chairmanship of the nUH.
The letter informing Hata of his suspension was draconian at least. He was not only ordered to stay out of any Utusan Melayu offices but stated that he was not allowed to "leave his neighborhood" and would have to be in areas that are reachable by the company "at all times." He is also barred from bringing in outside counsel to the disciplinary hearing and must rely on the NUJ branch at Utusan Malaysia for assistance.
V Anbalagan, the general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, told the online publication Malaysiakini that the directive to impose "house arrest" on Hata was utter nonsense.
"I don't know where Utusan derived their power from. Which law says it can do this? Utusan is not the police, nor is it the Attorney-General's Chambers," he said.
He added that while he will be present at the daily's headquarters in Kuala Lumpur in an attempt to represent Hata, the NUJ will still adopt a wait-and-see approach until the decision from the inquiry is made.
"We just want to go through due process. We want to fight the DI (domestic inquiry) first. We are not going to protest now, but we will wait for the outcome of the DI," said Anbalagan.
Following Utusan's suspension of Hata, a Facebook group has sprung to his support for those who wish to register their objection to his treatment.