Media War in Malaysia

KimGooi Photojournalist

Media War in Malaysia
First published at The Irrawaddy Magazine March, 2001 – Volume 9 No.3

A year after its inception, Malaysiakini is struggling to establish the facts that have been trampled over by the country’s state-run media and the mainstream regional press.

Recently, Radio Television Malaysia (RTM) provided a training course for a group of journalists from Colombia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and other Third World countries in Penang. During the training, the course leader proudly said: “Our government is giving special aid to Third World countries and we are training them to be good television journalists and producers.”

Members of the world’s free press would certainly be flabbergasted to hear such a statement. I asked him point-blank how they could attempt to train other people when their own productions are atrocious. I cited an example—a documentary about native/traditional music. It shows natives making traditional musical instruments, tuning them and finally the whole assembly playing. Yet it was all shot mute, so the viewer never knows what the instruments sound like, and, most shocking of all, Western music was substituted in the background. When I mentioned other examples of shortcomings—biased news items, poor picture framing and sound, and editorial content full of lies—he claimed that the programs in question were not made by his group. But they were all RTM productions, I insisted.

I told him there used to be joke among professional cameraman that the most famous cameraman in China is called “One Long Pan”. But this criticism is no longer valid, because the Chinese media has improved its techniques after exposure to the products of Western media. However, RTM is still caught in the One Long Pan syndrome, I suggested. When a Laotian journalist came over to join us, the RTM trainer begged me earnestly: “Please do not tell him what you just said, it’s embarrassing!”

This episode sums up the press/media situation in Malaysia, which is something like “the Emperor’s new clothes”. Until someone points out their failings, they not only think they are on par with the best, but they also go about boasting and teaching others to work like them. Yet rather than imparting any useful skills, the RTM is more like a thief teaching others how to steal.

Two recent incidents have brought the deplorable lack of press freedom in Malaysia into sharp relief. Ezam Mohammad Noor, the leader of the youth wing of the opposition Keadilan party, was arrested and locked up because a pro-government publication reported that he had made a statement saying he would topple the government by holding daily street demonstrations. He was arrested on March 5 and incarcerated until March 13 when he was finally charged in court with uttering seditious words. The party vice-president, Chandra Muzzafar, said Ezam was arrested although he had thrice denied making the statements. Another opposition party leader, Lim Kit Siang, said the police should have established the truth of Ezam’s alleged seditious statements, as reported in the Malay daily, before arresting him. “If the report is false, then the person to be arrested is the editor of the paper,” was Lim Kit Siang’s view.

Innuendoes, lies and poison pen letters have always been part of the political landscape of Malaysia. When politicians fight, they never do it openly. Long before Deputy PM Anwar Ibrahim was convicted and jailed, poison pen letters and a book about his alleged crimes and debauchery had been circulated widely. However, the arrest of an opposition leader solely on the basis of a news report in a pro-government paper has taken the situation to preposterous dimensions.

Parallel to this event, RTM launched a relentless campaign to demonize the country’s only free press—a news Web site called Malaysiakini—with lies and half-truth, said the Web site’s editor Steven Gan. Ever since its inception just over a year ago, Malaysiakini has been a runaway success and a challenge to the government’s version of what is truth. Former Deputy PM, Musa Hitam, who is currently head of the Human Rights Commission, gave it an exclusive interview, and government ministers have participated in its opinion polls. Leaders of the ruling United Malay National Organization (UMNO) have written openly to criticize and blame Prime Minister Mahathir for the loss of a by-election and the lack of transparency in the sale of Malaysian Airline shares.

It has attracted the country’s best writers and academics. Its professionalism, in-depth reporting and exposure of malpractices made the sycophantic government-controlled press look ridiculous and amateurish. Early this year its editor won the prestigious NY-based Press Freedom Award. This award was the first of its kind for a Malaysian, but it was never reported in the mainstream press.

The government saw its chance to pounce on Malaysiakini when the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) reported in its Feb 8 issue that it was one of the media organizations in the region that received funds from financier and currency speculator George Soros. Overnight, the mainstream press hurled condemnation at and cast aspersions on Malaysiakini. No doubt its reputation suffered a serious jolt, even though the Review was wrong, according to Stephen Gan.

Later, FEER editor Michael Vatikiotis revised this report: “In ‘Leveling the Playing Field’ (Feb 8), we reported that Malaysiakini.com receives support from George Soros’ Open Society. Rather, the Open Society funds the Bangkok-based Southeast Asian Press Alliance, one source of funding for Malaysiakini.com.”

“In plain English, it implied that Malaysiakini did not receive funds from Soros as originally asserted by the magazine. We are receiving funds, but indirectly from SEAPA,” said Gan.

The only link SEAPA has with the Soros Open Society Institute, which administers funds from the billionaire’s foundation, is that the institute pays for the stipends of an advisor to the Committee to Protect Journalists, who works closely with SEAPA in monitoring violations of press freedom in Southeast Asia. That money goes nowhere but into the advisor’s pocket.

The advisor, A. Lin Neumann, a longtime journalist who is also a board member of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, readily acknowledged both his work with SEAPA and his admiration for Malaysiakini.

“I think this whole controversy is silly,” Neumann said. “The fact is that OSI has supported part of my work, as it supports the work of many NGOs in the region. But Malaysiakini is something else entirely. It is an independent initiative which SEAPA has assisted with funds raised elsewhere.”

“The Malaysian mainstream is just using this as an excuse to attack a brave group of independent journalists. This is shameful,” Neumann retorted.

In fact, most of SEAPA’s funds come from member organizations and a number of international foundations, including UN agencies, for its projects supporting independent media in the region. This included the provision of a US$100,000 grant to Malaysiakini last year, Gan said.

“Put simply, Soros does not fund SEAPA and Malaysiakini does not receive a single cent, either directly or indirectly, from his foundation,” explained the editor.

“We had expected the FEER to make the correction quickly. Instead, the clarification issued by managing editor, Michael Vatikiotis, fell short of an honest retraction,” added Gan.

As expected, the mainstream newspapers, especially the UMNO-linked New Straits Times and pro-government TV stations, went to town casting aspersions on Malaysiakini’s perceived link to Soros. These reports have capitalized on lies, putting Malaysiakini under a cloud of rumor and suspicion through allegations of foreign intervention and harboring an “unpatriotic” agenda.

“There is no doubt that both our reputation and our credibility as a source of independent news in Malaysia have been severely tarnished. Much of the damage could have been controlled had the Review swiftly made an unmitigated correction. This, unfortunately, was not the case,” said Gan.

Every evening, RTM would devote a special slot to Malaysiakini. The reports were laced with quotes taken out of context, fabrications and downright lies. In the most blatant lie it said Steven Gan had written a false story on the death of 59 detainees in the Semenyih immigration camp. Instead, said the RTM report, there were only eight deaths including that of a police officer.

The truth is that RTM confused two different events. One was in 1998 when thousands of Indonesian deportees rioted in Semenyih. When order was restored 8 Indonesians and a police officer were dead and dozens injured. Steven Gan was working for The Nation in Bangkok and did not cover the event.

The story that Gan covered was in 1995 when he was working for the Sun. Together with his colleagues he found out about the death of 59 detainees in Semenyih. The story “Shattered Dreams” eventually received an award from Mahathir at the Malaysian Press Institute’s Journalism Awards in 1996.

Malaysiakini has voiced concern that the public-owned media is being used to launch baseless attacks against independent news organizations and raise doubts about the credibility of the Web site’s editor, Steven Gan. It has called on RTM to correct its reports and issue an apology for accusing its editor of fabricating news of the deaths of illegal immigrant detainees. Like the FEER, RTM has not done so.

“And to think that our taxes go to paying these so-called journalists in RTM,” lamented Malaysiakini’s editor. We might well add, “And to think that tax payers’ money is used by these people to ‘train’ other journalists from the Third World.”

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