The Nation, November 23, 1998
More and more Malaysians are getting fed up with the biased reporting of the media. Andreas Harsono of The Nation reports from Kuala Lumpur.
Rustam A Sani just recently ended old habit: reading his morning newspapers. They 54-year-old columnists, one of Malaysia’s finest political commentators, stop subscribing to his four Malaysian dailies in September.
“Do you think I’m an idiot?” asked Rustam, adding that he had decided to do so and even stopped writing his columns after insiders told him about drastic editorial changes made prior to the open conflict between Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his former deputy Anwar Ibrahim.
“If the press does work against itself, people will not trust the press,” Rustam said, as if trying to say that editors of his four dailies the Malay language Berita Harian and Utusan Malaysia as well as the English language New Straits Times and The Star do not resist official interference vigorously enough to keep their editorial independence.
Across Malaysia, from Kuala Lumpur to smaller towns, many professionals, lecturers and writers like Rustam express similar views. They boycott the media because they are not getting a true picture of what is going on in Malaysia.
Mahathir has a different idea about how to overcome the ongoing economic crisis. He chose to control the Malaysian ringgit. But his deputy Anwar advocated a more conservative approach, including increasing interest rates, but still ensuring the free flow of capital.
The clash of their two approaches climaxed when Mahathir dismissed Anwar on Sept 2 and then put Anwar in jail on Sept 20, changed with sexual misconduct.
Anwar appeared in court a few days later with black eyes and bruises on his face, stirring outrage from old friends like Indonesian President B J Habibie and Philippine leader Joseph Estrada. US Vice President Al Gore also openly criticized the arrest by taking up the cry of “reformasi” shouted by the street demonstrators.
As specific example the censorship, protesters claimed that their rally on Saturday drew a crowd of 15,000, a number generally endorsed by international media present. But local newspaper played down the number, reporting a crowd of only 2,000 to 5,000. Meanwhile, television reports are worsening to the extent that intellectuals have lost, their appetite for criticism of the five existing channels in Malaysia. Radio is associated only with music and entertainment.
Elizabeth Wong, the coordinator of the Suaram human rights group, simply defined the coverage of Utusan Malaysia, the biggest Malay language daily here, as “slanted, extreme and rubbish”, saying that the biased reporting began in July after chief editor Johan Jaafar was pressured into resigning from his job. There other top editors were removed from their positions in three news organizations.
The removal clearly demonstrated how Mahathir’s party, the United Malays National Organization (Umno), has the final say on every editorial question. The Utusan Malaysia, for example, is part of the Utusan Melayu (Malaysia) Bhd Group, whose shares are largely owned by companies and people close to Umno.
Umno also controls the New Straits Times and the Berita Harian groups. The Star is linked to the Malaysian Chinese Association, which formed the ruling government with Umno.
“The editors were all Anwar men, before. But now they’re all Mahathir men. That means the paper belong to the Umno,” said Norila Daud, a senior journalist of Utusan Malaysia and president of the National Union of Journalists Malaysia.
And it is precisely in the context of such alignments that news of Anwar’s dismissal and the ongoing street demonstrations have been covered. Umno linked media preferred to tone down the coverage. Meanwhile, the leading opposition newspaper, Harakah, which is associated with the Malaysian Islamic Party, published unvarnished views of the Anwar camp.
Unconfirmed reports said the boycott has caused Utusan Malaysia’s circulation to drop by 40 per cent and that of the New Straits Times by 20 per cent. Meanwhile, the circulate of Harakah has increased from 25.000 to 280.000.
Khalid Muhamad, who replaced Jaafar, decide to comment on the boycott and the public outrage against his newspaper, saying that he did not want to create another public debate. But Norila defended Utusan Malaysia, saying that the circulation is not really affected by the boycott.
Another hurdle for many Malaysian media is the British-inherited Printing Presses and Publication Act which basically requires news organizations to renew their publishing license every year.
The initial bogeymen were the communists the 1950s. A territorial dispute with Indonesia in the 1960s also produced another reason. The legislation place a tremendous psychological pressure on the media. It is also difficult, if not impossible, for an independent publisher to get a license. The licenses are usually issued only to cronies of top-ranking government officials. Once a publisher gets a registration, her or she is also immediately subjected to the monitoring of the Home Affairs Ministry which has the authority to renew the license.
From the commercial point of view, the existing investors naturally choose to secure their huge investment and to stay away from covering controversial issues. “We’re trying desperately not to tell lies.
But we have to secure our national interest as well,” said an editor who asked to remain anonymous.
Journalism is also considered to be a comfortable job. “It’s good like life. It’s very orderly society,” said the editor of an English language daily, describing that a young reporter could get paid three times higher than a young lawyer, excluding annual bonus, travel expenses and overtime.
It is not a surprise therefore that in recent weeks, protesters have begum attacking members of the local media.