Sanctions for Malaysian Press Union Boss

Malaysian National Union of Journalists President Hata Wahari has been found guilty of eight charges filed against him by his employer, Utusan Melayu Bhd, at the conclusion of a domestic inquiry.

The charges are widely regarded to have been triggered by Hata's statements about the lack of freedom in the country's mainstream press. A 16-year veteran reporter with the Malay-language paper, Hata was elected to head the journalists' union last September. The paper is owned by the United Malays National Organization, the country's biggest ethnic political party. He was ordered to appear before the domestic inquiry in January. He could face a severe reprimand, a salary cut or dismissal. The final decision was delayed for two weeks.

Most observers expect Hata to be dismissed. If he is sacked, he would be the third Utusan Malaysia (translated as Malaysia Courier) employee to lose his job because of union activity. Former NUJ president Yazid Othman and NUJ-Utusan Malaysia chairperson Amran Ahmad were also dismissed earlier. As with Yazid, Wahiri would be forced to give up the chairmanship of the union.

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.

"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 told Asia Sentinel in January when he was suspended and placed under house arrest. "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 said. "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."

Utusan Melayu charged the journalist with, among others, "revealing company secrets." However, Hata told local media that the eight charges he faced had nothing to do with company secrets but rather stemmed from reports published on the Web sites Malaysiakini, Malaysian Insider and in The Sun newspaper and the Merdeka Review.

The NUJ head has repeatedly criticized Utusan for its increasingly strident views on Malaysia's perennially tense race relations, saying the paper makes things worse with its rhetoric. He told Asia Sentinel that such policies have led to dwindling circulation for the paper, which was once the leading Malay-language publication in the country.

NUJ general-secretary V Anbalagan told local media the decision against Hata was "highly expected of Utusan Malaysia. I have to stress that Hata is only airing his views as a union person in highlighting the interests of the workers and mainly bread-and-butter issues." Hata's comments, he said, are protected by the NUJ constitution.

"Utusan Malaysia has no authority to take action or punish a union official,' Anbalagan added. The journalists' union, he said, would back Hata whatever the repercussions.

Malaysia's Center for Independent Journalism issued a statement saying it regretted the guilty verdict and urged a write-in campaign to Utusan's management because it is "within the right of an NUJ president to speak for the dignity and integrity of the profession, and reject political interference in the newsrooms. Fair comment is allowed as part of the constitutional right to freedom of expression.

"Yet," the statement said, "the fact that punitive action can be taken against a journalist union leader for criticizing the lack of the very freedom that is foundational to the work of journalists speaks volumes of the state of press freedom in Malaysia."