Attacks on the Press 2001: Malaysia

In 2001, Malaysia’s ruling National Front coalition, led by aging strongman Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, sought to broaden already tight controls on the press through coercion, ownership changes, verbal bullying, and backroom personnel moves.

Currently, all publications must obtain an annual press license to operate, and the permit can be withdrawn without judicial review. Radio and television are even more tightly controlled, with almost no independent news allowed. In addition, the government owns virtually all major media, either through the ruling National Front parties or Mahathir’s allies.

In January, Mahathir became irate when Hong Kong’s Asiaweek magazine printed an unflattering photo of him on its cover. A special office in the Home Affairs Ministry that screens foreign publications then delayed distribution of Asiaweek in Malaysia by a week or longer. Joining the queue was an issue of another regional magazine, the Far Eastern Economic Review. While Asiaweek ceased publication late in the year, the Review continues to be censored with no formal explanation from Malaysian authorities, although the delayed issue did contain an article about opposition to Mahathir within the ruling party.

In late December, the normally cautious English-language daily The Sun, which is owned by one of the prime minister’s closest associates, drew Mahathir’s ire with a Christmas Day report that police had uncovered a plot to assassinate Mahathir. The prime minister denied any knowledge of the alleged plot and sharply criticized the newspaper. On December 27, The Sun ran an apology, and the paper’s editor-in-chief and another editor resigned. The paper also suspended the two senior editors, the reporter, and the photographer credited with reporting the story. But the ousted news editor stood by the article, telling reporters that the prime minister’s office was aware of the report but had not issued any instruction to pull the piece.

On December 31, some 40 Sun journalists, including representatives of the usually staid National Union of Journalists, staged a demonstration outside the newspaper’s office in protest against both the apology and the suspensions.

In May, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), a senior partner in the ruling National Front coalition, dealt a paralyzing blow to the Chinese-language press–traditionally the country’s most independent–by acquiring two major Chinese-language dailies, Nanyang Press and Nanyang Siang Pau. The move effectively brought the papers under government control, and journalists protested what they saw as pre-emptive censorship of the Chinese-language media. Even some MCA members opposed the takeover because it might erode support from Chinese constituents who feared that Mahathir was using the party to further his political interests.

Concerns that the newspapers would lose their independence seemed justified when the senior editorial staff of both papers were dismissed after ownership changed hands. A subsequent consumer boycott of both publications led to a steep drop in newsstand sales, according to the independent online newspaper Malaysiakini. MCA’s takeover left only one major Chinese daily out of government control, Sin Chew Jit Po.

The sole bright spot in this bleak landscape is the Internet, which has thus far escaped government control or censorship, largely because Mahathir wishes to attract foreign investment to his high-tech “Multimedia Super Corridor” project.

Since 1999, the news Web site Malaysiakini has provided daily online news for a growing base of consumers while attracting international attention. However, the government stepped up pressure on the publication during 2001. In February, the Far Eastern Economic Review reported that Malaysiakini had received start-up funding from a foundation controlled by currency trader George Soros, whom Mahathir has branded an enemy of his country’s financial system.

The site denied the report, but Mahathir told the nation that “loyal Malaysians” should stop reading Malaysiakini. Around the same time, Malaysiakini reporters were barred from attending government press conferences on the grounds that they did not carry government-issued press cards. Throughout the year, other government officials warned that the site would be prosecuted if its reporting endangered “national security.”

In May, the prime minister’s office announced that laws were being prepared to require online journalists to observe the same draconian restrictions that impede the rest of the media. By year’s end, however, no formal action had been taken. Fortunately, another Internet site seeking to expand Malaysia’s journalistic horizons was launched in 2001., a Malay-language Internet radio site, began broadcasting online in August to bypass government controls regulating radio licenses for independent operators.

Also in May, CPJ named Mahathir one of the Top Ten Enemies of the Press. See CPJ’s 2001 Enemies list.