"Some states need good dictators," Mahathir Mohammad, Malaysian Prime Minister since 1981, said in 2001. Guardian of "Asian values", opposed to "western democracy", the head of government does everything in his power to hinder independent journalists, especially those of the on-line daily Malaysiakini.com, and to block the distribution of critical foreign publications. A columnist with Malaysiakini.com was imprisoned according to the Internal Security Act, used by the government to muzzle opposition media. Overzealous censors blocked the distribution of the magazines Asiaweek and Far Eastern Economic Review for several weeks, starting in February 2001. Even more serious, the press group of a party in the government coalition took over two private newspapers that target this country’s very large Chinese community. This buyout caused a controversy and editorial staff revolted against the government’s thinly-veiled takeover of these publications. More generally, anger mounted against censorship and laws that reduce freedom. In 2001, thousands demonstrated in favour of press freedom.
Most Malaysian media are controlled by press groups close to the government. Criticism is rare and self-censorship is rife. Publications must be wary of the very restrictive Printing Press and Publications Act, and journalists can face astronomical lawsuits for slander.
Mahathir Mohamad’s regime has also had to face the rise in Islamist movements whose publications were banned in 2000. To fight against these parties, the government funded the launch of a radio station, IKIM-FM, in July, whose goal is to promote Islam as a way of life. When the station was inaugurated, the Prime Minister again accused Islamist parties of "voluntarily misinterpreting Islam." Two months later, RadiqRadio was launched but, this time, to counter the monopoly of the airwaves held by radio stations close to the government. Since this station could not get a licence in Malaysia, it broadcast from Indonesia. Its journalists, based in Malaysia, do not see themselves as opponents, but merely wish to "let Malaysians speak again".
One journalist jailed
On 10 April 2001, Hishamuddin Rais, a journalist working with Malaysiakini.com,was arrested together with five opponents who were organising a demonstration to be held in front of the National Human Rights Commission. This free-lance journalist, known for his very critical articles, was sentenced to two years in jail according to the Internal Security Act. He and the other defendants were convicted of attempting to overthrow the regime.
Three journalists arrested
On 27 October 2001, police arrested a reporter for the local radio station RadiqRadio, a cameraman with Harakah (a press organ of the Islamist party) and Hanafiah Hamzah, a cameraman with the cable television station Channel News Asia based in Singapore, during a demonstration of opponents to the Internal Security Act. This peaceful demonstration occurred near the Kamunting detention camp (north of the country), which holds, among others, the free-lance journalist Hishamuddin Rais. As the crowd was breaking up, police charged and arrested the three journalists and held them for more than twenty-four hours.
Pressure and obstruction
In January 2001, two dealers of the magazine Haraki were arrested in Kuala Lumpur. Police also inspected two newsagents and seized copies of the Islamist newspaper Harakah. Throughout the year, police harassed opposition newsagents and confiscated copies of critical publications. These newsagents were often threatened with arrest for violations of the Internal Security Act. Authorities also searched two printers, in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur, accused of printing opposition publications.
On 5 February, the Ministry of Home Affairs refused to allow journalists with the online journal Malaysiakini.com to attend governmental press conferences. To justify their decision, the authorities said that this online daily did not have a press licence. But this authorisation, renewable each year, is not required for online media. On 11 February, an official with the Ministry of Information said that Malaysiakini.com was blacklisted because of its "dubious" credibility. At the same time, the deputy Minister of Home Affairs, Chor Chee Heung, threatened to take sanctions against Malaysiakini.com if it was discovered that the site had received funding from a foundation run by the American philanthropist George Soros. Asian governments had accused Soros of speculating against their countries at the beginning of the economic crisis in 1997.
In late February, the authorities blocked the distribution of the foreign weeklies Asiaweek and Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER), which were no longer available in newsagents in the country. It was not for two weeks after the 15 March issue of the FEER was published that it was available in Malaysia. The Prime Minister criticised Asiaweek for deliberately publishing, in February 2001, a picture of him looking "tired and stupid". Authorities seemed to sanction FEER for publishing an interview with a Philippine Islamist rebel who spoke of links between these extremist movements and Malaysian businessmen. On 7 March, Peter Back, the managing editor of Asiaweek, sent a letter to the Minister of Home Affairs asking for explanations. On 21 August, Peter Back implicated the Kuala Lumpur government in the delays of the magazine’s distribution, which distribution was systematically delayed two weeks with no explanation from the authorities. During the month of March, the distribution of the magazines Time and The Economist was also delayed while waiting for government approval.
On 5 March, the Prime Minister directly attacked the online journal Malaysiakini.com. "These people act like traitors (...) and people who love Malaysia cannot count on them."
On 14 March, the police chief of Selangor presented a detailed report accusing Malaysiakini.com and two opposition parties of "sedition". He accused them of contesting the official assessment of the riots in Petaling Selatan. Two days earlier, police had prevented journalists from entering the Selangor hospital where people wounded during these riots were being treated.
On 17 March, the Minister of Finance warned foreign media about the economic consequences of their criticism of the Malaysian government. "From a purely economic point of view, foreign media must understand that they have interests in our economy," he said. Two days earlier, the Minister of Foreign Affairs had ordered Malaysian journalists working for international media to not be "used to destroy national harmony".
On 20 March, management of the official press agency Bernama withdrew, five hours after its release, a dispatch on declarations of a well-known journalist with the New Straits Times in favour of greater respect of press freedom. This decision was said to have been made following political pressure.
On 22 March, the youth branch of the UMNO (Prime Minister’s party) filed suit against five foreign media: South China Morning Post, International Herald Tribune, The Times, Agence France-Presse and Associated Press. The organisation accused them of "suggesting that the police were attempting to hide information from the public about the riots in Taman Medan." UMNO accused the foreign press of printing comments from some opposition leaders who claimed that the police had responsibility in these riots, which saw clashes between young Malaysians and Indians.
On 23 March, an official with the Ministry of Home Affairs announced that the Ministry would reinforce its "surveillance and control" of political publications which appear without authorisation.
On 16 April, Mahathir Mohamad accused foreign media of being "always inclined to lying and immorality". The Prime Minister threatened to strengthen press laws and make them more efficient.
On 23 May, the deputy Minister of Home Affairs, Chor Chee Heung, said that the government "was closely watching all articles on Malaysiakini.com" and threatened to file suit against the site if it "endangered national security".
On 28 May, editorial staff of the independent Chinese-language dailies Nanyang Siang Pau and China Press went on strike to defend the independence of their newspapers. The following day, eight editors of these two newspapers were asked to resign. The two publications had just been bought out by the Huaren Holdings press group, which is owned by the Malaysian Chinese Association party (MCA, a member of the coalition in power which represents the Chinese community). This press group spent more than 60 million euros to buy out these two dailies with a circulation of more than 400,000. Huaren Holdings also publishes Sin Chew Jit Poh and Guang Ming and controls the highest circulation Chinese-language titles in the country. MCA also controls the best-selling English-language newspaper The Star. As soon as this buyout was announced, some forty journalists from the two newspapers declared that they would no longer write for them. An opposition leader denounced the "black Tuesday" of Malaysian press and a human rights organisation said that these two newspapers would become "simple organs of propaganda". Leaders of the Chinese community spoke out against this buyout and called for a boycott of the newspapers. On 7 June, MCA officially took control of Nanyang Siang Pau and China Press. Even within the MCA, criticism was heard. In late June, the Prime Minister recognised that he gave the MCA the green light to take over these two newspapers. On 27 August, management of Nanyang Siang Pau ordered its employees to not "participate in activities that could damage the reputation and authority" of the newspaper. Disciplinary actions would be taken against those who violated this order. The following day, a similar order was issued to employees of China Press. The journalists mobilised against this takeover continued their reactions: they denounced these "censorship orders". Rebellious journalists regularly appeared in front of the press and publicly read articles that were censored for "political reasons". In November, ninety journalists and intellectuals of Chinese origin decided to no longer write for newspapers controlled by parties close to the government. However, they did manage to have a new column, called "Strong Opinion", created in the Chinese-language magazine Jing Pao (Strong News). These Chinese journalists also published a book, Grieving for Newspapers, which criticised the takeover of the Chinese dailies. One of these journalists, Yong Sun Yong, explained, "The news published in these four newspapers is all alike. It is hard to see a difference in the way they cover news or the opinions they express."
In early June, the government announced that it was planning to tighten its control over "some independent Web sites". When the Multimedia Super Corridor was launched in 1996, Malaysian authorities promised that they would neither regulate nor censor sites related to the new economy, in the hope of attracting more international companies. When this large project failed, the government decided to go back on its promises and promulgate a code on Web site content.
On 13 August, police searched the offices of the magazine Harakah published by PAS (an Islamist opposition party) looking for DVDs and cassettes containing recordings of banned political speeches.
On 27 August, the deputy Prime Minister’s head of press relations, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, prevented a journalist with Malaysiakini.com from entering a room where the Minister was about to hold a press conference. "You are not allowed to enter," he said. The following week, the Minister of Home Affairs also prevented a reporter with this Web site from attending a press conference. "You are not accredited, and, what is more, you misquoted the Minister in an article," said one of the Minister’s aids. Malaysiakini.com has not received accreditations for governmental press conferences since April 2000.
On 14 September, Samad Ismail, Nazlan Nordin and Zainon Ahmand, three experienced journalists with the daily New Straits Times, were fired only a few days after the arrival of a new managing editor close to the Prime Minister. Their layoff letters gave no explanation for this sudden decision. Sources close to the newspaper said that this layoff was done for financial reasons. Others think that this was a settling of scores within the newspaper and that those close to the government won out.
On 28 October, the Prime Minister again attacked American media, which he said were nothing but a "huge propaganda machine". He accused them of blaming Iraq for anthrax attacks in order to justify new bombings.
On 8 November, Abdul Aziz Hamdan, programming manager with the radio station Time Highway Radio, announced that the government had banned the program "Arch to Happiness", a late-night talk show. Authorities felt that the existence of such a program, which allows married women to speak out, especially about their sexuality, in a Muslim country, was "revolting".
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has been denounced as a predator of press freedom by Reporters without Borders.