Reporters Without Borders voiced concern today about the Sin Chew media group’s near monopoly of the Chinese-language press in Malaysia after its owner, billionaire businessman Tiong Hiew King, got control of the public-listed Nanyang Press Holding Berhad, which publishes Chinese-language dailies Nanyang Siang Pau and China Press, and a staple of magazine titles.
“Malaysia’s low position (92nd) in the Reporters Without Borders world press freedom ranking for 2006 is due in part to the concentration of the media in the hands of pro-government businessmen and the fact that this fosters self-censorship,” the press freedom organisation said.
“We join the Writers Alliance for Media Independence, the Civil Rights Committee and the Centre for Independent Journalism in expressing concern about the implications of the Sin Chew group’s expansion for news diversity,” Reporters Without Borders said.
“We hail Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s honesty when saying in an interview for CNN on 14 October that, ‘the main press self-censor but other little ones... print all sorts of things,’ and we call on parliament to liberalize the Printing Presses and Publications Act while introducing anti-monopoly clauses,” the organisation added.
The most important press group, Media Prima, used to be owned by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the main government party. Today it is partly owned by the Malaysia Resources Corporation Berhad, which has close links with the party and the government. Media Prima includes the leading English-language daily, The New Straits Times, and the second Malay-language newspaper, Berita Haritan, as well as Malay Mail, Harian Metro and Shin Min Daily News. Media Prima also owns four terrestrial TV stations.
Tiong’s Sin Chew group already owned two daily newspapers: Sin Chew Daily and Guangming Daily. Through acquiring a 21 per cent stake in Nanyang Press Holding, it gained control over Nanyang Siang Pau, although it has registered a loss of 6.3 million ringgits (1. 37 million euros), and its sister publication China Press. Both newspapers have in recent years become the mouthpiece of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), which is part of the ruling coalition.
It was the MCA that sold Tiong his 21 per cent stake while retaining 23 per cent for itself. The MCA’s new president, Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting, is very close to Tiong and together they control nearly 45 per cent of the paper.
Nanyang Siang Pau’s only Chinese-language rival is Oriental Daily News, owned by the estate of the late businessman Lau Hui Kang. Despite a promising launch in 2003, most of its staff has been replaced and it routinely practices self-censorship in its coverage of Malaysian affairs.
The other Chinese daily, Kwong Wah Yit Poh, is a regional newspaper restricted to the northern states in Malaysia.
Tiong’s main business is timber and he is said to have amassed one of the 20 largest fortunes in Southeast Asia. He also controls the Hong Kong-based daily Ming Pao and the weekly Yazhou Zhoukan, and he has let it be known that he intends to build a Chinese-language press empire.
Repressive legal arsenal
The 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Act, which covers newspapers, books and foreign publications, leaves it to the discretion of the internal security ministry to grant and revoke newspapers’ publishing licences. The 1948 Sedition Act, a hangover from the British empire, is vaguely worded, punishing “seditious tendencies... inciting hatred or contempt for the government, administration or justice... provoking discontent among subjects, hostility between races and classes... [and] questioning the articles of the constitution concerning language... [and] the sovereignty of rulers.”
The 1972 Official Secrets Acts allows the authorities to classify almost any administrative matter as secret, and to arrest and hold without a warrant anyone “suspected of acting in a manner likely to prejudice Malaysia’s interests... until proof to the contrary.” Finally, the Defamation Act was used to sue almost every newspaper and TV station in 2000 and 2001.
These four laws place considerable curbs on the media’s coverage of domestic affairs and result in a very high level of self-censorship.