Malaysia: Political pressure behind shakeup at The Sun, sources say

January 21, 2002

His Excellency Dato’ Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad
Prime Minister
Prime Minister’s Office
Federal Government Administrative Centre
62502 Putrajaya
Fax: 60-3-88883444

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply concerned that political pressure may have prompted the recent wave of resignations, suspensions, and lay-offs at The Sun newspaper. Local journalists have told CPJ that the radical retrenchment of the daily’s staff is part of an effort to rein in its political coverage, which had been more independent and aggressive than that of any other mainstream news outlet in Malaysia.

Nearly all mainstream Malaysian newspapers are owned or controlled by parties aligned with the ruling National Front. Vincent Tan, a close associate of Your Excellency, owns The Sun, Malaysia’s third-largest English-language daily. Like all other newspapers in Malaysia, it is generally not at odds with the regime. However, at times it has published reports on controversial topics, including party divisions within the Malaysian Chinese Association, a leading partner of the National Front.

On December 25, The Sun published a report detailing an alleged assassination plot against Your Excellency and Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Citing police sources, the paper reported that police had foiled the plot.

On December 26, you denied any knowledge of the plot and claimed the story could potentially damage Malaysia’s international reputation and discourage foreign investment. The same day, officials at the Ministry of Home Affairs called a meeting with The Sun‘s chief news editor, Robert Ho.

Also on December 26, editor-in-chief H’ng Hung Yong resigned. The following day, The Sun published a retraction of the article and announced that Ho, reporter R. Manirajan, and photographer Anita Mohamad Nasir had been suspended.

On December 27, another senior editor named Andy Ng resigned from the paper to protest the suspension of his colleagues. The Board of Directors appointed a shareholder with no editorial experience to replace Ng. The new editor then suspended the managing editor, Cheng Chong Hai.

Ng and the other editors have consistently stood by the December 25 story, saying that government officials verified the report. Since January 11, The Sun‘s management has dismissed more than 40 other staff members, citing financial difficulties. Most of those dismissed were senior journalists. Further layoffs are expected in the near future.

While you have denied exerting direct pressure on The Sun, you said publicly that you are “satisfied” by the resignations of senior editors at the newspaper, according to the national news agency Bernama.

As a nonpartisan organization of journalists dedicated to the defense of our colleagues worldwide, CPJ condemns any state interference in the media. In order for true democracy to exist in Malaysia, journalists must have the ability to report and publish free of political pressure.

CPJ is aware that the Human Resources Ministry is investigating possible labor violations that may have occurred during the recent staff changes at The Sun. However, CPJ calls on the National Human Rights Commission to investigate possible violations of the journalists’ right to freedom of expression, which the Malaysian Constitution guarantees. We ask that the results of any inquiry be made public.

Thank you very much for your attention to this important matter.


Ann Cooper
Executive Director