Attacks on the Press 2002: Malaysia

Strict licensing laws, self-censorship, and pervasive political influence dominate the press in Malaysia. Under the country’s severe Internal Security Act, journalists are also subject to indefinite detention without charge, as well as harsh libel penalties. The ruling National Front coalition and corporations allied with the government of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad control all major newspapers and broadcast outlets, ensuring a substantial degree of official influence over news published in the country. The only exception is the Internet, which has so far remained censorship-free. The courageous online newspaper Malaysiakini is the only truly independent source of information in the country.

Traditionally strained relations between the foreign media and the Malaysian government continued in 2002, with authorities blocking the distribution of three U.S. newsmagazines–Newsweek, Time, and the Far Eastern Economic Review–in January and February, apparently because the government considered some stories “inaccurate and untrue,” including reports on alleged links between the al-Qaeda terrorist network and groups in Malaysia. “It is unfair on the part of the correspondent to give views without checking the facts,” Deputy Home Minister Chor Chee Heung told The Star newspaper in explaining the actions. Under Malaysian law, authorities are required to screen foreign publications prior to their distribution in the country.

Some officials accused the Western press of conspiring against Malaysia. In May, hard-liner Datuk Zainuddin Maidin, then parliamentary secretary at the Information Ministry, reacted to a local seminar held on World Press Freedom Day (May 3) by saying, “The big problem faced by the Asian countries now after the end of the cold war is the infiltration by subversive elements from the developed countries through their media and the use of local journalists to carry out the agenda of Western media imperialism.” Zam, as he is known in Malaysia, then accused journalists from the Philippines and Thailand of trying to influence Malaysia on behalf of the West. In November, Zam was promoted to the even more influential post of deputy information minister.

On May 3, the Home Ministry suspended the Malay-language tabloid Perdana Sari for three months for alleging that a leading member of Mahathir’s United Malay National Organization party is a lesbian.

Ethnic Malays comprise about 60 percent of the population, with Chinese and Indians accounting for the rest. Until recently, Chinese-language papers were more independent than Malay and English media outlets, perhaps because of the inordinate economic clout of the Chinese minority. In 2001, the Malaysian Chinese Association, a member of the ruling coalition, took over Nanyang Press Holdings, which publishes Malaysia’s two leading Chinese dailies, sparking fears that the previously independent Chinese press would follow in the timid footsteps of the rest of the Malaysian media. A new independent Chinese-language daily, The Oriental Daily News, published only one issue, on September 29, before the Home Ministry suspended the publication’s permit without explanation. The suspension was lifted in early December, but it was not clear when the new daily would publish again. Observers linked the suspension to political pressure: Large numbers of journalists had left the Nanyang group to join the new paper, according to press reports.

In June, Mahathir tearfully announced that, after 21 years, he would resign as prime minister and cede the post to his deputy, Abdullah Badawi. The resignation is expected to become effective in late 2003, but observers doubt that it will result in a better environment for the press. In fact, some journalists say the situation has already deteriorated. Since the announcement, aides to the future prime minister have begun ordering newspapers to increase their coverage of Badawi. “We are told now to put his picture on the front page and what to say about him. The instructions are very clear,” an editor told CPJ.

Since 1998, mainstream journalists have been pushing the government to repeal the repressive Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) of 1984–which allows the government to license and close newspapers–in favor of a self-regulatory, nongovernmental media council. Meanwhile, the conservative, private Malaysian Press Institute has drafted a plan for a media council that does not lift the PPPA and instead creates a semigovernmental body with additional powers to control the media.

In early January, management at The Sun daily newspaper fired 41 journalists after a story ran alleging that police had foiled an assassination plot against Mahathir. Observers suspect that the government was behind the layoffs and believe that the story was an excuse to rid The Sun of a number of independent-minded journalists, some of whom had worked on the piece. Government officials denied involvement in the incident. The financially ailing paper eventually laid off 256 more employees before being sold to a new company and relaunched as a free publication in April. Wrongful termination lawsuits filed by several former employees remain pending.

January 24

Far Eastern Economic Review

In late January and February, the Malaysian government delayed the distribution of Time, Newsweek, and the Far Eastern Economic Review because the three magazines published reports linking Malaysia to international terrorist activities. Distribution of five issues of the Far Eastern Economic Review was delayed, beginning on January 24.

Four issues of Newsweek, starting with the February 4 edition, were also delayed. That edition cited FBI reports calling Malaysia a “primary operational launchpad for the September 11 attacks” on New York City and Washington, D.C. Authorities also blocked distribution of four issues of Time magazine in February. The February 11 issue reported on alleged financial links between Malaysia and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network.

The Home Ministry has the power to approve all foreign publications for distribution. On February 28, Deputy Home Minister Chor Chee Heung told The Star newspaper that distribution of the publications had been delayed due to “inaccurate and untrue reporting.” Distribution was restored in March.

September 30

Oriental Daily News

Oriental Daily News (ODN), a new, independent Chinese-language daily, was able to publish only one issue, on September 29, before the Home Ministry suspended its publishing permit without explanation. Observers linked the suspension to political pressure.

In 2001, Nanyang Press Holdings, which publishes Nanyang Siang Pau and China Press, Malaysia’s two leading Chinese dailies, was taken over by the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), a member of the government’s ruling coalition, sparking fears that the previously independent Chinese press would follow in the timid footsteps of the rest of the Malaysian media. Large numbers of journalists left the Nanyang Group and joined ODN, according to press reports.

ODN‘s suspension was lifted in early December, still with no explanation for the actions. The daily’s second issue was published on January 1, 2003. ODN management and individual newspaper vendors complained that employees of papers affiliated with the MCA had warned vendors against selling ODN.