Quo vadis, press freedom in Malaysia?

By Thomas Chew, MySinchew

The current crackdown on the alternative coalition newspapers may be one of the measures to suppress any possible scandalous information implicating certain top politicians.

It was the English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton who coined the famous metonymic adage “The pen is mightier than the sword” in 1839 for his play Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy

And it was the 18th Century French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte who confirmed the truth of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s figure of speech with this profound statement: “I fear the newspapers more than a hundred thousand bayonets.”

We can now understand why the ruling Barisan Nasional federal government is getting jittery, fidgety and paranoid over the increasingly popular newspapers published by the component parties of the alternative coalition Pakatan Rakyat.

During the past two weeks, one after another of these main alternative publications – the Suara Keadilan of the PKR, the Harakah of PAS, and the Rocket of the DAP – have had their publishing permits arbitrarily withheld or withdrawn.

The Suara Keadilan was banned after it published on its front page the revelation that Felda was going bankrupt. The dubious reason for the withdrawal of the Suara Keadilan publishing permit does not hold water, especially when no action was taken on a more serious earth-shaking allegation by a minister that the country was going bankrupt within a decade. The minister’s statement was front-page news on the major mainstream newspapers, with a more widespread readership.

The purportedly false story about Felda going bankrupt does not warrant such a drastic action. Legal actions, including the civil suit being taken by Felda against the newspaper, and charges of false reporting under Part IV, Section 8A (Offence to publish false news) of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, could be used to deal with the newspaper.

Obviously, the reason for the severe action of depriving the Suara Keadilan of its publishing permit is more than simply the purported printing of an inaccurate news report, which is quite a common phenomenon in Malaysian newspapers. Many will recall that in the 1980s, The Star reported on its front page that the then Home Minister Ghazali Shafie was killed in an air crash, but he was not. No action was taken against the paper for making assumption that King Ghaz couldn’t have survived the crash.

I think the current curb on the publications of the alternative coalition component parties is perhaps to prevent them from printing news reports and commentaries concerned with the private investigator P. Balasubramaniam’s so-called revelation at media conferences overseas on the death of Mongolian beauty Altantuya Shaariibu, which may implicate and embarrass several very prominent local people.

After the death of Altantunya, Balasubramaniam had made a statutory declaration relating to the murder but withdrew it the day after through a second sworn declaration. Now, he is claiming that what he had stated in the original statutory declaration was the truth, and that he was pressured and bribed to refute the first statutory declaration with a second statutory declaration.

The current crackdown on the alternative coalition newspapers may be one of the measures to suppress any possible scandalous information implicating certain top politicians.

It is true that irresponsible journalism could cause damage to people and may even result in havoc in the country, but shutting out the press is not the proper way to deal with the matter. The counter-effect of such an action will only bring about more confusion and dissatisfaction among the people. Speculations and rumours will spread and the people will be groping and fumbling in uncertainty. The best way to stop rumour-mongering is to allow the press to report the truth, not suppress the press.

We already have many laws to restrain and constrain the press in Malaysia. Other than the Printing Presses and Publications Act, we have the dreadful Internal Security Act (ISA) with its provision for indiscriminate detention without trial, the appalling Official Secrets Act with its mandatory jail term, the Penal Code, the Police Act, etc. Any big blunder by the press or any journalist requiring punishment could be taken under any of these laws. There is no need to shut down a newspaper.