The media situation further deteriorated in 1998 as the
collapse of the economy and the increasing popularity of Deputy Prime
Minister Anwar Ibrahim seemed to threaten Mahatir’s position. Pre-empting
any challenge to his leadership, Mahatir sacked Ibrahim and tightened the
control of local and foreign media in Malaysia. "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," declared Deputy Information Minister Suleiman Mohamad on July 26. He also added that "the local media is kept in check with the Internal Security Act (ISA)," 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. Several members of Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad’s government, including the Prime Minister himself, made statements criticising local and foreign media for not
reporting fairly on the economic situation.
The Malaysian press is hamstrung by strict licensing regulations
and a pattern of ownership that gives the ruling UMNO party overwhelming
control of the popular press. The result has been a media culture
largely marked by self-censorship and what some Malaysian journalists call
a "speak no evil" approach to sensitive issues. As local journalists,
who don’t want to threaten
their job security in a time when the economy is collapsing and jobs become more and more scarce, tend to strictly follow the directives of their editors, the government seeks any possible way to keep control of foreign journalists.
On August 9, Information Minister Mohamed Rahmat announced
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
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 criticised 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."
Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim,
removed from office by Mahatir on September 2, was arrested a few
days later, after leading some 30,000 angry demonstrators in a rare display
of public outrage, shouting for Mahatir to step down and pressing for political
reforms. On September 21, broadcasts of Malaysian riots in support of Anwar
by several TV broadcasters, including BBC (Great Britain), ABC (Australia) and TVNZ (New Zealand), were jammed for several hours. Malaysian authorities said that they will allow the free flow of information if it is done in a "proper manner." The broadcast showed Malaysian riot police repeatedly firing water cannon and tear gas at several thousand demonstrators. Two days later Mohamed Rahmat, Minister of Information, declared that foreign journalists would not be allowed to use government
facilities to transmit news and visual images judged to be detrimental to the country.
As the local media is tightly controlled and streets protests
are banned, Anwar’s supporters turned to cyberspace to give his side of
the story and to spread word of planned protest. The government, however,
immediately took measures to warn dissidents not to use the Internet to
stir up strife. Investigations aided by the Malaysian Institute of Microelectronics
Systems (Mimos), an Internet Service Provider, led to the arrest, under the Internal Security Act, of four people in August who were charged with spreading rumours of rioting on the Internet. On October 5, Malaysian police was reported to have set up an Internet unit to monitor sites and newsgroups which have been organising protests against the jailing of Anwar. The national Bernama news agency said that the unit was set up on the instructions of Prime Minister Mahatir and its mission was to watch for information and messages which could affect public security. Opposition groups are worried that the authorities’ use of Internet service providers to track down the suspects shows a repressive attitude to one of the country’s few arenas for free discussion and debate.
Two leading Malaysian editors resigned in June under political pressure by the UMNO ruling party, after Mahatir criticised local media for "negative" and "sensational" reporting of problems at Kuala Lumpur’s new airport.
Johan Jaafar, who oversees the leading Malay-language daily
newspaper Utusan Malaysia, submitted his resignation on July 14. Malaysian
journalists say that recent reports in Utusan Malaysia about severe operational
problems at Malaysia’s new airport have proven embarrassing to some UMNO
party leaders. And the newspaper is perceived to have sided with Deputy
Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim in its coverage of intra-party struggles over political and economic reform. The paper is part of the Utusan Melayu Bhd. group, whose stock is largely owned by UMNO.
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 on July 18 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." Prime Minister Mahatir denied reports of a clampdown on the country’s media and refuted allegations that the resignation of the two leading editors was due to political pressure.
Nasiruddin Ali, director of the publishing firm Karya One, which published four magazing linked to a banned Islamic sect, is still in prison since May 1996. The charges against Nasiruddin have never been made public. The civil unrest following Anwar’s arrest has brought two radically different visions of the media’s role into open conflict. On one side are foreign news organisations, used to open access, uneasy with censorship and hungry for public debate. On the other are government officials determined to protect the nation against "enemies." It is an old debate, embodied in the concept of the New World Information Order, which tends to be questioned when two vastly different cultures come face to face.
The arrest of Anwar Ibrahim and the demonstrations that ensued have
again exposed the cultural divide. In one corner are Malaysia’s leaders,
saying that the media has a role in helping to build a nation state that
is only 41 years old and whose economy is still developing; as Information
Minister Mohamed said, journalists are first and foremost Malaysians and
should refrain from filing negative stories that damage
their own country. In the other corner are rights activists, who accuse
Malaysia’s government of holding the press to ransom through state ownership, licenses and ownership by parties in Mahatir’s ruling coalition.
The reality remains that Mahatir, upholding supposed Asian and Malaysian values and criticising Western double standard, has held power for 18 years, suppressing any opposition and blocking the expression of dissent and the free flow of information.
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