Widespread social and political demonstrations prompted the authorities to harden their line towards the press. The internal security ministry, the bête noire of editorial offices, imposed censorship on the most sensitive issues. A journalist was physically assaulted for investigating leaders of an Indian community party, close to the government.
In the face of mounting criticism, the government of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi reacted with a crackdown. The internal security ministry, under the pretext of fighting incitement to racial hatred or insulting the king, set out to intimidate dissident voices, in particular bloggers. One minister threatened imprisonment against cyber-activists who opened up an unprecedented area of freedom.
The leading media are often compelled to ignore or to play down the many events organised by the opposition and non-governmental organisations. When in December 2007 members of the Indian minority demonstrated, the press simply relayed with no attempt at balance remarks by the authorities attacking the organisers. The internal security ministry asked some media on three separate occasions in November not to report on unauthorised demonstrations. Thus a march on 10 November calling for free and transparent elections passed off without any coverage, apart from online, including by the daily Malaysiakini, which also revealed in June that the authorities had ordered radio and television not to allow too much airtime to the speeches of opposition leaders.
The internal security ministry sent a directive to the national media in July banning them from prolonging the debate on the state’s Islamic or secular nature and the authorities threatened to withdraw licences from those who continued to carry news on the issue shortly after the deputy prime minister Najib Razak made a controversial statement about the country’s Islamic character.
Journalist left in a coma
At the beginning of November, the photo-journalist R. Raman of the Tamil-language Malaysia Nanban was left in a coma after being assaulted by two thugs in his office in Johor Baru, in the south of the country. He woke up several weeks later but remained paralysed. Ten days later, his colleague M. Nagarajan received a phone call threatening to kill him if he continued to write articles about poor conditions in the schools. Nagarajan told the press freedom organisation, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ): “The caller said I would face the same fate as my colleague if I continued to pursue this story”.
Both reporters had challenged the management of the Tamil schools by leaders of the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), a member of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, after which the MIC called for a boycott of the paper. Members of the MIC had previously threatened two journalists on Malaysia Nanban during a political meeting in April.
And, in August, another Tamil-language newspaper Makkal Osai was banned for one month, on the strength of a complaint lodged by the MIC, after publishing an image of Jesus with a cigarette in one hand and a can of beer in the other.
Ruling party militants also assaulted other journalists, including in mid-November, a photographer on the Guangming Daily who was beaten after taking shots of activists in the prime minister’s party as they insulted a political opponent.
Criticism in the blogosphere
Malaysians are very active in the blogosphere and the majority of them support the opposition. In January the prime minister called the bloggers “liars” while in July, the law minister, Nazri Abdul Aziz, said the government would not hesitate to resort to the Internal Security Act (ISA) to punish them. The ISA provides for imprisonment for two years without trial for offences such as “harming state security”. Nazri Abdul Aziz added that the government had until then been “very patient”. Police summoned and interrogated Raja Petra Kamaruddin (nicknamed RPK), who runs the blog Malaysia Today, at the end of July after he posted criticism of the king. The ruling party then laid a complaint against the writer, who claims his blog is read by more than 300,000 a day.
Also in July, Nathaniel Tan, a blogger and member of the opposition Justice Party (PKR) was held in custody for four days, apparently because of a link from his blog to a website hosting news termed as an “official secret” relating to a corruption case implicating internal security minister, Johari Bharum. In September, it was the turn of a journalist working for online television TV PAS, affiliated to an opposition party, to be arrested after covering a demonstration.
Less freedom for traditional media
Bloggers close to the opposition have exposed the fact that Malaysian media handling of the local situation bears the stamp of self-censorship. The management and former managers of the daily New Straits Times sued bloggers Jeff Ooi and Ahiruddin Attan for “defamation”, after the outspoken writers posted articles demonstrating that some news and editorials in the Malaysian daily lacked objectivity.
It was the same New Straits Times which abruptly halted publication of columns by two independent-minded editorialists. Officially for technical reasons, the columns written by Zainah Anwar, promoting the rights of women, and another by Amir Muhammad disappeared within five days or one another. Zainah Anwar had headlined her last piece, “Let’s give freedom a good press”. Amir Muhammad, a respected film-maker and writer, had broken one of the country’s taboos by rehabilitating communists who fought for independence in the 1940s. His arrival at the daily in 2006 had been seen as a sign of greater openness. He posted on his blog the uncut versions of his articles, which were regularly re-written by the daily’s management.
The authorities, who are very prickly on religious issues, banned Catholic weekly The Herald, published in the Malay language, for using the word “Allah”. This instruction was notified to Brother Augustin Julian in a written order from the internal security ministry on 10 December. “We follow the Bible. Its Malay version uses Allah for god. If the government has the impression that the word Allah creates confusion, it should perhaps educate the Muslims,” said Brother Julian. Two weeks later the authorities withdrew the ban.