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Malaysia 24 November 2003

New Straits Times editor in chief fired as a result of Saudi pressure

Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières) today condemned the dismissal of New Straits Times editor in chief Abdullah Ahmad on 21 November as a result of the direct intervention of Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who has recognised that this was due to a report about the policies of Saudi Arabia.

"This case illustrates Saudi Arabia’s inability to tolerate international press criticism and the submissiveness of the Malaysian newspapers towards the government of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi," the organisation said.

Saudi Arabia often applies pressure to protect its international image and Reporters Without Borders has registered many Saudi attempts to get governments or news media to apply censorship or self-censorship.

The Saudis this year put pressure on Lebanon to block the broadcast of a report on Saudi Arabia by the television network NTV. The news media and authorities in Yemen often receive threats after the publication of reports criticising Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi government has for years been calling for a boycott of the Qatar-based Arabic-language TV network Al-Jazeera.

The editor in chief of the New Straits Times was fired without warning by the daily’s management at the request of the ruling UMNO party following a complaint by the Saudi ambassador in Malaysia.

The newspaper carried an article on 12 November that criticised the reduction in the Mecca pilgrimage quotas assigned to Malaysia’s Muslim community. "I am not surprised... in Malaysian politics, anything can happen," editor in chief Abdullah told Agence France-Presse. Known by the nom de plume DKL, Abdullah said some of the prime minister’s associates had been trying to oust him for the past year. He had a contract until October 2004.

On 22 November, Prime Minister Abdullah publicly defended the editor’s dismissal but said the reasons were neither political nor personal. It was thought that the New Straits Times article could cause problems for Malaysia’s relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, he said.

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