Syabas, Hatta, for standing up for press freedom

If the Barisan Nasional administration is unable to bring about such reforms, then we must throw it out at the next general election.

Thomas Lee Seng Hock, My Sinchew

I wish to commend and congratulate the newly-elected National Union of Journalists (NUJ) president Hatta Wahari for making a bold and brave stand in defence of press freedom. It has been a long time since any leader of the NUJ has stuck his or her neck out to speak out against the abuse and exploitation of the media, especially in the mainstream newspapers.

In an interview with Malaysiakini, Hatta blamed the top editors of Utusan Malaysia for the daily’s frequent confrontation with politicians.

According to the senior journalist at Utusan, the conflicts are between Utusan chief editor Aziz Ishak, supported by the senior editors, against the politicians from both the Barisan Nasional and the Pakatan Rakyat.

Hatta said it is unfair to fault the newspaper company per se with the alleged manipulation of its paper’s content by the editors with vested political interest.

He said there are many Utusan journalists, photographers, graphic artists and other staff members who do not agree with the agenda of the editors, but are powerless to do anything.

Obviously these lower-ranking journalists and staff members do not have any say in the decision-making process of the newspaper, let alone criticize or challenge the chief editor and senior editors on their political slant.

Hatta said the NUJ feels that the Utusan chief editor and senior editors do not advocate or practise press freedom, but merely take care of the interest of their political masters.

He said the public and politicians should not direct their anger at the newspaper company, but should take to task the chief editor for the controversial reports published by the newspaper.

“The chief editor determines the agenda, news and opinions which are published by Utusan and should be held fully responsibility for any negative elements, complaints and discontent hurled at the daily,” he said.

Hatta also pointed out that at stake is the rice bowl of the estimated 1,000 Utusan employees and their family members, in subtle reference to the daily’s gradually declining circulation figures.

Many people and opposition political leaders have been condemning the Utusan for its racial slants and heavily skewed reporting towards its owner Umno.

Hatta certainly deserves our accolade and support for speaking out, without fear or favour, on the very fundamental matter of press freedom, despite the very real risk of jeopardizing his career.

An outspoken and crusading journalist is usually a marked person, and a file will be opened to record every little mistake he makes, to build a case against him. He will be lucky if there are no trumped-up charges like sexual harassment, etc to get rid of him.

I doubt there are many editors and journalists who are prepared to stand up and be counted for truth, righteousness, justice, freedom, fairness, equality, and human rights. The cost is certainly very high, and the price for the sacrifice includes being sidelined for promotion, and alienated to insignificant positions and tasks.

I have worked as a journalist and editor in the mainstream news media since 1975, in the now defunct National Echo, the New Straits Times, Malay Mail, The Sun, and The Star, and had also served as the NUJ secretary-general in the late 1970s.

Throughout the 35 years in the newspaper industry, I have worked with all sorts of editors and journalists, and have identified five types of journalists in the media community.

First, there are the EEs — Editorial Eunuchs, who take orders from their political emperors and write and spin stories to promote the emperor’s cause. These political appointees are usually in top and senior positions, not because they are good journalists or great writers, but because of their connection to powerful political godfathers. They are first class cronies. Many are ghost writers for their political masters. Some are made Datuks or given various civil awards. Several have become millionaires.

I thank God that, except for one or two cases, the editors I had worked with are not such people. I can vouch that people like P.C. Liew, Ng Poh Tip, Michael Aeria, Wong Sulong and Wong Chun Wai are good people of principle and top class journalists, not EEs. My good friend Chong Cheng Hai, the managing editor of The Sun, is another person of integrity.

Secondly, there are the PPs — Press Prostitutes, who have sold their souls and principles to gain favours and privileges from their political and/or business clients. They will write what pleases their political masters. The amount of hampers and gifts they receive during festive seasons is perhaps a good indication of their rising status in their media organization. (Perhaps the Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission should consider looking at this practice of giving editors hampers, gifts and big fat ang pows during festive seasons).

Thirdly, there are the MMs — Media Marionettes, the puppets who have no brains but are used and abused by opportunists to advance their own political or business agenda. They usually feed such journalists with twisted information and deceive these gullible writers to propagate their schemes of things. Our education system has produced many such gullible, unthinking, uncritical, and dumb people; and some of them are found in the media organizations.

Fourth, there are the JJs — Junket Journalists, those who will write anything for the sponsors of their overseas trips. Let me illustrate how some big corporate companies use such overseas junkets to bribe editors and journalists to do their biding. Company A has a product which the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) considers harmful to the people. The CAP keeps issuing press statements on its research on the harmful product and the newspapers keep publishing the statements. Company A wants to put a stop to such bad publicity of its product. So, it organized a week-long trip for senior editors to visit the product’s factory in Japan. Everything was paid for and provided for, including pocket money for shopping. The editors had a thoroughly good time. On their return, they repaid their wonderful host by stopping all negative reports on its product.

Finally, there are the WWs — Wise Writers, the rare breed who know how to survive through the controlled press situation and get their honest views into print without rousing the suspicion of their media bosses, who are usually political cronies. There are very few such honest writers with integrity and principles, and they are usually not in positions of power.

I believe that Hatta as the NUJ president can contribute significantly to preserve, promote and advance press freedom in Malaysia. My hope is that the other members of the NUJ executive council, and all NUJ members will mobilize under Hatta’s leadership to fight for press freedom to flourish in Malaysia.

For a start, Hatta and the NUJ should launch a campaign to get the federal government to repeal or amend the oppressive anti-press laws such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act, Internal Security Act, Official Secrets Act with its mandatory jail term, Sedition Act, and other related rules and regulations curbing press freedom.

How can we expect to have OneMalaysia when we do not really have a free and credible press?

If Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak is truly sincere in wanting to take the country to greater heights as OneMalaysia, then the first thing he needs to do is to liberate the press by abolishing the oppressive legal restraints, and enact a Freedom of Information Act. Then, he must revamp the whole administration system to get rid of those known to be corrupt, racist, and incompetent. Most importantly, there must be reform in the judiciary, enforcement agencies, and the election commission. Local council elections should be reinstated.

OneMalaysia? It will remain a slogan and a dream if the current federal government does not take concrete actions to reform the whole political and administrative environment in the country. And the first thing Najib must do is to remove the unjust oppressive laws and crack the whip on those in his party Umno and in the civil service who propagate and promote racism.

If the Barisan Nasional administration is unable to bring about such reforms, then we must throw it out at the next general election.