Dr. Mahathir’s regime continued to practice a subtle mix of censorship, harassment and imprisonment to keep a grip on the news. Most of the Malaysian news media were controlled by press groups linked with the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Criticism was rare and self-censorship prevailed. Publications had to be wary of the draconian Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) and journalists worked under the threat of libel suits with huge awards for damages. The imprisonment of dissident journalist Hishamuddin Rais since April 2001 under the Internal Security Act served as a reminder to independent journalists of the risks of being too critical.
Under the PPPA, publications were required to have a licence that must be renewed each year with the interior ministry. The ministry was empowered to suspend licenses on its own authority, with no possibility of appeal. Magazines, especially ones linked to opposition parties, appeared and disappeared quite quickly after being refused a permit. A journalist linked to the main Islamist party PAS threw in the towel in March after bringing out half a dozen magazines in the course of the past two years, all of which were banned.
The government did not hesitate to use the media to attack opposition parties. In January, the main television channel carried a government spot that interspersed pictures of leaders of the Islamist party PAS with footage of Afghan women killed by the Taliban.
Despite pressure and obstruction, the online newspaper Malaysiakini.com reported the news without self-censorship. In an editorial carried in 2002, it forecast that the government would step up its harassment of the press in the run-up to the general elections of 2004.
One journalist imprisoned
Hishamuddin Rais, a contributor to the online newspaper Malaysiakini.com and a documentary film-maker, began a hunger strike on 10 April 2002 with five other dissidents detained under the Internal Security Act. Held in Kamunting prison in Taiping, in the northern state of Perak, he and his five companions, all members of opposition movements, were accused of trying to overthrow the government and were sentenced without any trial to two years in prison. Relatives said their health deteriorated quickly once they went on the hunger strike. After six days, Hishamuddin Rais and Badrulamin Bahron were transferred to the prison’s hospital and put on intravenous drips as they continued to refuse to eat. After eight days, they won support from human rights activists, government opponents and the detained former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, who also went on hunger strike for several days in solidarity. No state-owned news media or news media linked to the ruling party mentioned their protest, which they finally gave up after 11 days.
Four journalists arrested
Reporters Rosmida Abdul Rahman, Mohd Nor Abdul Samad and Haris Zulkapli and photographer Rozani Mohamad of the daily Cabaran were arrested by police on 20 June 2002 while covering a general meeting of the ruling UMNO in Kuala Lumpur. They were questioned in a police station about their work as journalists before being released after several hours.
Pressure and obstruction
It was reported on 3 January 2002 that the Chinese-language magazine Strong News was reorganising its supplement Strong Opinion and that its editor Wong Chin Huat was standing down. Launched in October 2001, the supplement had offered a platform for the 90 editorialists and columnists of Chinese descent who had stopped writing for the main Chinese-language dailies in 2001 after they came under the control of a party allied with government. Strong Opinion was thereafter cut down to two pages. Several journalists said the overhaul was needed to enable Strong News to renew its license with the interior ministry at the end of January.
Journalists with the tabloid daily The Sun protested on 16 January against the dismissal of 40 of the newspaper’s staff four days earlier. The press group that owns the newspaper, Sun Media Sdn Bhd, headed by Vincent Tan, a friend of the prime minister, had cited economic difficulties as the reason for the mass firing. But it was widely seen as punishment for a story three weeks earlier about a foiled plot to assassinate Prime Minister Mahathir and his deputy Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. The report proved to be erroneous and the prime minister said it had harmed Malaysia’s image. The Sun had apologised and had dismissed editor Robert Ho, journalist R. Manirajan and photographer Anita Nasir but this proved to be insufficient atonement.
The government on 11 February banned distribution of the current issue of the US magazine Newsweek containing a representation of the Prophet Muhammad. Islam bans any visual depiction of the prophets. In response to a letter from Reporters Without Borders, the deputy prime minister said the ban just implemented the country’s laws and did not constitute an obstacle to the free flow of information. Two days later, Rais Yatim, the minister in charge of legal affairs, announced that he was considering suing Newsweek over an article portraying Malaysia as one of the bases used for launching the 11 September attacks. He said other international magazines developing this idea should also be scrutinised.
Deputy interior minister Chor Chee Heung said at the end of February that the government had decided to block or delay the distribution of the last four issues of four international magazines, Newsweek, Far Eastern Economic Review, The Economist and Time, because of erroneous reporting about Malaysia, in particular, the alleged presence of al-Qaeda in the country. The Economist was sanctioned because of a report about immigrant workers in Malaysia. In practice, the 11 March and 8 April issues of Time and Newsweek were not distributed until 17 April. The four last issues of The Economist were delayed for two week beginning 30 March.
Ahmad Lutfi Othman, a publisher and editor linked to the opposition party PAS, announced to the online newspaper Malaysiakini.com on 12 March that he was ceasing all journalistic activity because of financial problems which he blamed on government harassment. He had successively edited the opposition magazines Adil, Haraki, Memo 14 and Memo 15 (all published without permits from the interior ministry) and the dailies Detik and al-Wasilah (banned in December 1999 and March 2001, respectively). He lost sizeable sums of money as a result of repeated seizures of some of these publications by the police.
Time magazine apologised to the Malaysian authorities on 13 March for publishing an illustration combining Osama bin Laden and the Malaysian flag on the cover of its 11 February issue together with an advertisement for tourism in Malaysia on the last page. A spokesperson for the weekly explained that the apology concerned only the advertisement. But the government said on 14 March that it was satisfied with Time’s apology and would take no legal sanctions.
The parliament’s security officer notified the independent online newspaper Malaysiakini.com on 3 April that its journalists could attend parliamentary sessions but could not ask questions during press conferences or approach representatives of the ruling party because their professional status was not clear. The information ministry meanwhile maintained its two-year-old refusal to give them press accreditation. Two other online news sites, Radiqradio and Agendadaily, were also denied press accreditation.
The government announced on 15 April that a law forbidding any show of disrespect toward Islam and the Prophet Muhammad in the news media would henceforth be implemented more strictly. Rarely applied in the past, the law punished blasphemy with up to three years in prison or a fine of 1,000 euros. The announcement was the result of lobbying by an association of Islamic scholars which in February had accused six liberal newspaper columnists of "insulting" the religion of Malaysia’s majority. Abdul Hamid Othman, the prime minister’s advisor on religious affairs, said the articles of some journalists could be misinterpreted and confuse Muslims. The daily The Star reported on 19 April that the editors of national dailies would be summoned to the Department of Islamic Development in Malaysia (JAKIM) to be explained how they should avoid giving a "false vision" of Islam. Writers and columnists who wrote about Islam were henceforth required to submit their CVs to this department.
The parliamentary secretary to the information ministry, Zainuddin Maidin, told the National Union of Journalists at a meeting on 2 May that they should redefine press freedom according to Malaysia’s cultural and economic sensitivities instead of being the "dog of the western media imperialists." He said Malaysia did not need to accept "the western concept of press freedom," which just served the interests of developed countries like those in Europe. "Just because a newspaper shows support to the government does not mean that there is no press freedom," he said, going on to accuse "certain journalists from Thailand and the Philippines" of acting as the "agents of western media imperialists." Deploring Zainuddin’s comments, the Association of Thai Journalists said they just served to deepen differences between journalists in the region and foment discrimination in the name of Asian values.
The interior ministry shut down the tabloid newspaper Perdana Sari for three months from 3 May, World Press Freedom Day. The newspaper had violated the press law by lapsing into "sensationalism" and clashing with Malaysia’s "moral values," interior minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said. The newspaper had recently caused a scandal by reporting that the head of the young women’s wing of the ruling party was lesbian.
In a conference on "Journalism, Press Freedom and the Law" the same day, New Straits Times editor Balan Moses voiced concern about self-censorship, describing it as the main obstacle to press freedom in Malaysia. If journalists were less hesitant about asking difficult questions, government ministers and officials would have nowhere to hide, he said. He lamented that both journalists and officials suffered from what he called "tight-lipped" syndrome.
TV2, one of the stations of the state-owned broadcaster Radio Television Malaysia, on 1 June cancelled a special programme describing how the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), a member of the ruling coalition led by the UMNO, took over two Chinese-language daily newspapers in 2001. TV2 gave no explanation, but different sources said senior members of the ruling coalition put pressure on the TV2 management. The documentary looked at the impact of the MCA takeover on the local media and had interviews with two former journalists of one of the dailies concerned, Nanyang Siang Pau.
On the occasion of the Malaysian press awards on 2 June in Kuala Lumpur, Prime Minister Mahathir said the media should accord more importance to the truth than to popularity. He said Malaysia had a free press, distinguishing the media that supported the government from the rest, which included those that "denigrated the government" and "fabricated terrible stories about it."
The censorship commission announced on 23 August that it was banning an episode of the US TV series "Friends" because of sex scenes and scenes of "promiscuity between young people." The daily New Strait Times reported that at least 37 films, TV programmes or advertisements were censored between April and June 2002.