After 22 years in office, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad handed over to his faithful deputy, Abdullah Badawi, in October 2003. The press, which is controlled by the ruling party’s supporters, lauded Dr. Mahathir’s record. His successor, a former interior minister, continued the policy of firmness towards the press.
"I will be the world’s first dictator to retire at a time when he is still in perfect health," Mahathir Mohamad said in 2002 when revealing his plans to stand down. His overall record on press freedom was negative. He kept political and economic control over many of the media for two decades. One indication of this was the scarcity of discordant voices amid the all the praise for his achievements. Only the online daily Malaysiakini.com and a few publications linked to the opposition pointed out what a catastrophe Mahathir had been for human rights.
Before bowing out, he again attacked the international press, especially the western press, for its coverage of the war in Iraq and the situation in the Muslim countries. The government sent some 30 Malaysian journalists to Iraq in April 2003 at its own expense to counter the "western propaganda." Foreign minister Syed Hamid Albar said: "We don’t want to depend on the foreign media because their news reports are not based on neutrality." The journalists were accompanied by representatives from several ministries.
Malaysiakini.com editor Steven Gan said at a UN forum on press freedom in Kuala Lumpur in March: "We must obtain the repeal of 20 laws that tend to control the media and replace them by a single freedom of information law." But officials present said this would "light an uncontrollable fire." Press freedom activists at the forum criticised the spread of self-censorship on such subjects as government crackdowns and intercommunal tension. The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) failed a month later in its bid to have the 1960 Internal Security Act amended to protect political dissidents from being detained on a mere administrative decision. It was under this law that Hishamuddin Rais, a documentary film-maker and regular contributor to Malaysiakini.com, was detained until April. The government believed that national security should take priority over human rights. On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, the Suhakam urged journalists to campaign for the amendment of the press law, which gives the interior minister right of control over the media.
Also in March, deputy information minister Zainuddin Maidin reacted sharply to Malaysia’s being assigned 110th place in the Reporters Without Borders worldwide ranking of countries according to respect for press freedom. The organisation was a "political tool used by certain countries with the aim of discrediting Malaysia," he said. The pro-government daily Malaysian Star a few days later accused Reporters Without Borders of not "respecting national culture."
Although still under the threat of the very restrictive Printing Presses and Publications Act, the news media showed signs of being quite dynamic and the number of newspapers and magazines increased. But the opposition press had to cope with harassment by interior ministry agents who regularly put pressure on printers, distributors and advertisers. Reporters Without Borders registered very few direct press freedom violations again this year. This was because of the high level of self-censorship and control of editorial policies by media owners loyal to the government. A journalist with the English-language daily The Star (owned by the Malaysian Chinese Association, part of the ruling coalition) said: "We don’t lie. But we don’t say all the truth."
A journalist imprisoned
Hishamuddin Rais, a documentary film-maker and regular contributor to Malaysiakini.com, was released on 4 June 2003 after two years of detention under the Internal Security Act. He was held in Kamunting prison in Taiping, in the northern state of Perak, where he staged a hunger strike in April 2002 along with five other dissidents. All members of opposition movements, they had been accused of trying to overthrow the government and had been sentenced without trial to two years in prison.
A journalist physically attacked
An assailant severed one of the hands of Pang Tian Koo of the daily Sin Chew Jit Poh when Pang fended off a machete blow to his face while sitting together with his aggressor in a restaurant in Segamat, southeast of the capital, on 19 July 2003. Surgeons in a Kuala Lumpur hospital sowed the hand back on. Pang had gone to the restaurant to meet his aggressor, who called himself Ah Cheong, after he phoned Pang and said he wanted to buy advertising space. Minutes after joining Pang at his table, the stranger pulled out a machete from a bag, struck at Pang and then fled. Pang’s colleagues said the attack could have been motivated by Pang’s articles about Chinese triad gangs. Pang, who is also a municipal councillor, was previously attacked in the 1990s after writing about triad activities in the Segamat region.
Harassment and obstruction
The launch of a new newspaper, the Oriental Daily News, on 1 January 2003 set off a war within the Malaysian press. The four existing major dailies, all pro-government, mobilised against the newcomer, above all using commercial weapons. Despite a daily print run of 200,000 copies and although free for the first months, the newspaper did not win a significant slice of the market. Newspaper vendors who made it available found themselves penalised by the four competitors, who refused to provide their usual quota of copies. The new newspaper suffered a crisis within a few weeks and many journalists and other staff left. The managment decided to bring a lawsuit against its four competitors, all closely linked to leading political figures. Unlike its competitors, the Oriental Daily News dared to cover domestic political and cultural issues, interview opposition politicians and investigate government corruption. Owned by press magnate Lau Hui Kang, it had expected to win a large readership tired of the self-censorship in the four other main dailies.
Malaysian music radio stations received an order on 15 January to submit the scripts of all their live broadcasts to the authorities before going on the air. The measure was aimed at controlling disc-jockeys who tended to used "vulgar" words. In an unanimous reaction, all the station managers said the order was impossible to implement.
The police seized about 20 computers and many files from the headquarters of the online daily Malaysiakini.com on 20 January. The website’s owner, Steven Gan, said the raid was an attempt to close down the site, which started up in November 1999 and was getting 100,000 visits a day. The authorities demanded to know who had written an anonymous letter, posted on the site on 9 January, criticising the government’s granting of special rights to the country’s ethnic Malay majority and comparing the ruling United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) to the racist Ku Klux Klan in the United States. Gan refused to identify the author, as a matter of journalistic principle. He was summoned to appear before the police on 22 May to answer a complaint against the site for "sedition" and inciting racial hatred.
On 5 February, Malaysiakini.com refused to comply with an eviction order issued on 22 January by its landlord, the firm PC Suria. Gan wrote to PC Suria’s lawyer pointing out that the lease did not expire until December 2004 and that they had not broken any law. Gan also rejected all of the accusations made against him by the ruling party and reiterated his refusal to name the author of the letter that sparked the crisis. He also reported that many of the website’s 2,000 subscribers and 30,000 daily visitors were no longer connecting regularly for fear of police monitoring.
A Kuala Lumpur court on 2 May sentenced Zulfiki Sulong, the editor of the opposition daily Harakah, to pay a fine of 5,000 ringgits (more than 1,000 euros) for an article "inciting sedition." It had taken four years of legal wrangling between Sulong and former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim before the judge, Rosani Abdul Rahman, finally decided that the article fell into the category of sedition.
Irene Fernandez, the head of a women’s rights organisation, was sentenced on 16 October to a year in prison under article 8A of the Printing Presses and Publications Act for "malicious publication of false information." She remained free pending the outcome of her appeal. The conviction was the result of a 1995 complaint by a police officer about an article in the daily The Sun based on a report by her organisation about conditions in refugee camps in Malaysia. The journalists had won a prize for their article.
Editor in chief Abdullah Ahmad of the daily New Straits Times was summarily fired on 21 November at the ruling UMNO party’s request despite having a contract until October 2004. His dismissal followed a complaint by the Saudi ambassador about a 12 November article headlined "Liberate the land of the Prophet," which criticised a reduction in the Mecca pilgrimage quotas assigned to Malaysia’s Muslim community. Known by the pen-name DKL, the editor said associates of the prime minister had been trying to oust him for the past year. The next day, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said the government thought the article could create problems between Malaysia and Saudia Arabia and other Gulf countries, but he denied that the dismissal was personally or politically motivated. The Centre for Independent Journalism said this was yet another example of government meddling in the news media. But it was the former prime minister’s appointee, not a journalist, who had been sanctioned, the centre argued.