Threat of Censorship Grows in Malaysia

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August 14, 1998

His Excellency Dato' Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad
Prime Minister
Jabatan Perdana Menteri
Jalan Dato' Onn
Kuala Lumpur 50502
Malaysia

 

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply disturbed by Information Minister Mohamed Rahmat's announcement on August 9 that he plans to impose new rules and restrictions that would allow the government to more closely monitor the movements of foreign journalists in the country.

Foreign journalists working in Malaysia are already required to register with the Home Ministry in order to obtain a work permit. They also must provide the Information Ministry with details about their personal and professional background, as well as information about their employer, before obtaining a press pass. While the minister did not reveal the specifics of his proposal, he did make his intentions clear by saying, "If there is negative and bad news, we will then know who is responsible. . . . We are not preventing them, but we want to know who they are, so that we can resolve any problems that arise."

Rahmat also criticized Malaysians who work for the foreign press, accusing them of disloyalty and warning them "not to resort to slanting reports or write highly speculative reports just to please their employer."

As a nonpartisan organization dedicated to the protection of press freedom worldwide, CPJ is dismayed by the recent trend in Malaysia toward censorship. CPJ sent a letter to Your Excellency on July 15, expressing fear that the July 14 resignation of group editor in chief Johan Jaafar from Malaysia's most influential publishing company, Utusan Melayu Bhd., was the result of intense political pressure, and is part of the government's strategy to suppress independent voices in the country. Just days after Jaafar stepped down from his post, Ahmad Nazri Abdullah, group editor of Malaysia's largest selling daily, Berita Harian, followed suit. Abdullah's resignation prompted parliamentary opposition leader Lim Kit Siang to warn of a crackdown on the local media, charging that the two editors were forced to resign for trying "to promote greater space for independent, investigative, and critical journalism."

While your government has denied any involvement in these affairs, Deputy Information Minister Suleiman Mohamad told local reporters on July 26 that "If the media indulges in activities that threaten political stability or national unity, we will come down hard regardless of whether they are local or foreign." He went on to say that "the local media is kept in check with the Internal Security Act," which allows officials to arrest suspects without trial, and that the government would not hesitate to "black out" foreign news reports that portray the country in a negative light.

CPJ respectfully urges your administration to reconsider its attitude toward the press in Malaysia. While Your Excellency has made statements contemptuous of press freedom-referring to it as the "freedom to tell lies"-we would remind you that economic advancement and democratic reform are possible only through the open exchange of ideas by an uninhibited press. We believe that in cases where journalists knowingly distort the truth, there are sufficient remedies available for redress in civil law.

We look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely,

Ann K. Cooper

Executive Director


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His Excellency Dato' Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad
Prime Minister
Jabatan Perdana Menteri
Jalan Dato' Onn
Kuala Lumpur 50502
Malaysia

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