Race and religion influence Malaysia’s media policies

The political crisis and increasing strain between various religious and ethnic groups marked 2009 in Malaysia and are likely to spill over to 2010, leaving the demands for political and democratic reform in abeyance.

Although the country’s new Prime Minister promised greater space for freedom of expression and the press, little concrete action followed. Moreover, religious and ethnic tensions from 2009 are likely to continue to be used to rationalize restrictions on the press and cyberspace in 2010.

The  government last year did free some detainees held under the dreaded Internal Security Act (ISA)  and amended the University and College Acts to reverse a ban on students’ freedom of association and expression. On the media front, however, it is considering instituting a Media Council on top of the current Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) this year. What that can only mean for the press situation in 2010 is not too difficult to divine. Throughout 2009, punitive actions and laws continued to be invoked against government opponents and critics.

Crisis in Perak
One good illustration on how the government continue to operate in the “control mode” is the political upheavals in Perak state. Perak, the biggest of Malaysia’s 13 states, turned opposition in the 2008 elections. However, in February 2009, members of the opposition coalition of Pakatan Rakyat (PR) were enticed to defect to the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition. The resulting political vacuum forced the Sultan of Perak, Azlan Shahmade to act: Appoint lawmakers from the Barisan Nasional (BN) instead of supporting a move to hold a by-election. This triggered protests which in turn resulted in a government crackdown.

At the swearing-in of Perak’s new chief minister from BN in February, police fired tear gas at protesters, reported to be between 3000 to 5000, and arrested nine. Days later authorities, invoking the PPPA, confiscated  thousands of copies of two opposition newspapers, “Suara Keadilan” Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, or the National Justice Party) and “Harakah” published by the Islamic party, PAS, because these two publications had been publishing alternative views on the Perak conflict. The following month, the two newspapers were ordered shut down for three months by the government.

The ban was lifted on April 3, when Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak assumed his first day in office. However, six bloggers were arrested for allegedly criticizing the Sultan of Perak for his role in the power struggle. They were charged under section 233(1) of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (CMA) and section 34 of the Penal Code for “insulting” the Perak royalty in various blogs. The broadly worded section 233(1) penalizes the “improper use of facilities or network service, etc.” and provides for a jail term of one year and a fine of up to RM50,000 (approx. US$13,535).

Meanwhile. Karpal Singh, the chairman of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), one of the partners in the PR, was later accused of using “seditious words” when he issued a comment on 6 February to reporters about his opposition to the Sultan’s actions. If found guilty, Karpal faces up to three years in prison or a fine of up to RM5,000 (US$1,400) or both.

In May, when the assembly in Perak resumed, police again imposed a crackdown, arresting a total of 146 people, including opposition lawmakers, writers and activists in the span of three weeks. Among those arrested was Wong Chin Huat, writer, academic and chairman of WAMI, whose activism, coined as 1Black Malaysia, was simply to rally people to wear black on the assembly day. A political columnist for Malaysiakini, a leading online news service, and the editor of “Suara Keadilan” were among those arrested while attending a candlelight vigil for Wong in front of a police station in Kuala Lumpur. Police also seized DAP’s electronic equipment, publications and DVDs about the crisis in two separate occasions.

Incendiary protests and freedom of assembly
The Perak crisis is just one of several issues that drove Malaysians to streets, and the coverage of which prompted reprisals against the media.

When a Hindu temple was ordered relocated to a Muslim populated area in Shah Alam on 28 August 2009, Muslim residents held a protest rally, the highlight of which was the display of a newly-decapitated cow’s head, which was later kicked by some protesters. The Home Minister later came out with a statement supporting the Malay Muslim rallyists, sparking protests of religious insensitivities.

When videos of these protest and the Minister’s defense of the protest were posted on the website of Malaysiakini, the country’s leading online news site, the MCMC deemed these videos as offensive and asked Malaysiakini to take them down, invoking the Communication and Multimedia Act (CMA) 1998.

Racialization of issues vs. ethical reporting
While the protests above were communal in nature, others that are not were deliberately given racial spin by the media, pitting ethical concern over press freedom. In the event of the anti-ISA (the law that allows detention without trial) mass rally in August, UMNO-owned “Utusan Malaysia” painted the rally, attended by 10 000, as an intra-racial betrayal as well as the minority’s threat to the dominant race. Police arrested almost 600 people in addition to firing tear gas and water cannons, but the episode prompted Najib to promise that future mass rallies be allowed to take place in stadiums and the Home Minister, Hishamuddin Hussien to make good on his earlier promise of reviewing the ISA.

Najib had earlier relented to popular pressure of setting up a royal commission and inquest to probe the death of Teoh Beng Hock, political aide to an opposition parliamentarian. Teoh was found dead, apparently from a fall, at the office of the anti-corruption commission in July. Calls  for investigation were slammed by Malay dailies as questioning the majority race, as the anti-corruption agency is staffed by the Malays.

The editorial slant of “Utusan Malaysia” and the BN-owned “New Straits Times” was said to be the reason their reporters were banned from Pakatan events. Pakatan states in Selangor and Penang have also set up their online and print organs while being adamant with critics who disagree with the policy of banning the two dailies from the parties events.

Threats against online media and bloggers
The federal government remains wary of online sources and conduits of information. In March, during the annual UMNO general assembly, online media Malaysiakini, The Malaysian Insider, Siasah, Merdeka Review, and The Nut Graph were barred from covering, supposedly over questions of ethics.

Less than a month later, in April, a reporter and a photographer from the online news site MerdekaReview.com were barred from covering the PM’s announcement of his Cabinet lineup. Merdeka earlier posted online commentaries criticizing pro-Najib articles from other publications.

The government was also planning to further control the Internet through the use of filters. Malaysian Insider, an online news portal, reported on 6 August 2009 that a call for tender has been issued to companies to submit proposals to assist the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) to evaluate the feasibility of an Internet filter. The Ministry of Information, Communication and Culture expects the study to be completed by December 2009 and a decision to be made by the National Security Council headed by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak.
Following public outcry, the Ministry scrapped the plan a week after it was reported. Before the plan came to light, the new Minister of Information, Rais Yatim said in July that his ministry has been actively monitoring blog content. In an answer to parliamentarian’s questions in June, the Prime Minister said that civil servants were barred from visiting 39 sites deemed seditious, offensive or obscene, adding that several of the sites were under investigation.

In November, blogger Bernard Khoo was questioned by the police over the posting of a modified image of the police emblem. No charge was filed against him.

Intolerance of diversity of views
Criticism against the top brass of the government such as the Prime Minister remains  ill-tolerated. Shortly after the Prime Minister assumed office, three by-elections, seen as tests for Najib, had to be held simultaneously in the state of Perak, Kedah and Sarawak.

Police issued a ban against any mention of the case of a murdered Mongolian woman, Altantuya, in campaign speeches, as a rumor-link between the Mongolian and the Prime Minister had been raised during the trial by the opposition as well as bloggers. The over-zealousness extended to the media as well. Malaysiakini.com reported that television stations were ordered not to name one of the accused—the Prime Minister’s aide, Abdul Razak Baginda—and to ignore his related news background when reporting the judgment of the murder trial in April. (Abdul Razak was eventually acquitted.)

In July, a TV host was demoted to field reporter status after she asked her guests to rate PM Najib’s performance on the occasion of his 100th day in office.

On 25 August 2009, officials from the Control of Publication Department of the Ministry of Home Affairs seized copies of the inaugural issues of “Gedung Kartun” (Cartoon Store) from the publisher’s office in Kuala Lumpur. According to the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Zulkiflee Anwar Haque, better known as Zunar, more than 400 copies were seized. Authorities claimed Zunar was not able to secure a permit for the publication, as mandated by the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 (PPPA). Observers said, however, that Zunar’s political cartoons crticizing the PM and his policies were the real reason for the confiscation.

The circulation of religious view, particularly Islam is strictly guarded by the government institutions. Since February 2009, the government has prohibited the usage of four Arabic words—“Allah”, “Kaabah”, “Baitullah” and “Solat”—by non-Muslims. While a petition for judicial review filed by the Catholic churches was on-going, the Home Ministry seized thousands of copies of translated Bibles which use the word “Allah” from the customs checkpoint in March and September. In March, religious authorities in Selangor threatened the Bar Council with legal action for holding an online poll on the issue of the usage of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims. The court eventually granted a stay of order of its ruling in favor of the Catholics in December, following an appeal from the government as well as protests from several Muslim groups. The groups proceeded to organize demonstrations in various parts of the capital city airing their demand for “Allah” to be made exclusive for Muslims. Although the police deemed the demonstrations illegal, no arrest was made. As of press time, several Christian churches had been attacked with firebombs by Muslims.

Another instance of control of dissemination of religious view is the arrest of scholar Dr. Asri Zainul Abidin in November. A former mufti in Perlis and known for his critical views, he was arrested for giving unauthorized preaching by the Selangor religious authority. Despite the arrest drawing flak from the opposition parliamentarians and the Prime Minister, charges were filed against Asri. In the same month, the same religious authority also barred Pakatan parliamentarian, Khalid Abdul Samad, from preaching. The reason given was that his sermon was too “political”.

The end to these racial and religious strife in Malaysia, apparently instigated for political reasons—and their impact on the state of free expression in this country—is hardly in sight. That can only mean more anxious days ahead for the Malaysian press, and freedom of expression in the country in general.

(SEAPA thanks the Centre for Independent Journalism for its contribution to this report.)