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Southeast Asia

DIRE STRAITS
Cold off the press

By Anil Netto

PENANG - Malaysia's normally timid journalists taking to the streets to call for media freedom? What is the world coming to?

That's exactly what happened on New Year's Eve when journalists from a national English-language tabloid, The Sun, belatedly picketed against the suspension of their colleagues who had published a front-page Christmas Day story about an alleged plot to kill the country's top two leaders.

But before anyone gets too excited about the sight of mainstream journalists calling for media freedom, a quick look at the context is in order.

By all accounts, the Sun's screaming headline story "Plot to kill PM" backfired horribly. The December 25 story revealed that police had allegedly uncovered a plot by local politicians who had hired a hitman nicknamed "Raja Commando" to kill the prime minister and his deputy "in a month or two". Now, many politicians and journalists are familiar with only one "Raja Commando" - a deputy division chief of the opposition National Justice Party, Raja Kamaruddin Raja Abdul Wahid, a former army commando. "Raja Komando", as he is widely known, was not amused and denied any involvement in the alleged plot.

Embarrassingly for the Sun, their "scoop" barely raised eyebrows locally and was hardly the earth-shaking news it might have been had the media environment been different. Such is the state of media credibility in the country.

Casual coffee-shop conversation among friends was like:

"Did you see the Sun report about the alleged plot to kill the prime minister?"

"Yeah, right. So how are you spending New Year's Eve?"

Tellingly, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad himself said he laughed when he first heard about the report. But it was only later "when I found that the news was spread to the whole world and had a negative effect on the nation, I had to make a rebuke on how serious the matter was", The Sun quoted him as saying.

At The Sun's editorial department, heads rolled in quick succession. Editor-in-chief and executive director H'ng Hung Yong resigned on December 26, followed by news editor Andy Ng. Chief news editor Robert Ho and managing editor Chong Cheng Hai as well as reporter R Manirajan and photographer Anita Md Nasir, who were both credited with the "offending" report, have been suspended indefinitely.

But Ng was standing by the story, saying that it was checked above and beyond the norm for weeks before it was published. "We spoke to a deputy minister and a deputy press secretary on this matter ... but no one, among those whom we checked with, said we cannot run it," he was quoted as saying.

The Sun, owned by a firm controlled by a well-connected ethnic-Chinese tycoon, took other swift damage-control steps. It published a blanket front-page headline "Apology to PM and DPM" on December 27 - apparently to pre-empt any official inclination to suspend the daily. "Raja Komando", for his part, is demanding a similar apology and has sought legal advice. A host of Sun editorial staff have been interviewed by the police, while the Home Ministry's secretary general has said that the ministry has sent a letter to The Sun asking for an explanation for the story.

Was the reaction too drastic? A Sun journalist was reported as claiming that it was the impression of the management of the daily that there was pressure from Mahathir and the government on them. That remark prompted Mahathir to retort: "Their impression! I don't care about their impression, they have never had any good thing to say about the government. I don't care about their opinion ... thank you."

On December 29 came the Sun headline "PM satisfied - with resignations of the Editor-in-Chief and the Editor of The Sun", and on the following day: "DPM accepts The Sun's apology".

Farther down in the report came the announcement that "a very prominent lawyer", V K Lingam, apparently "an expert in media and corporate law", had been appointed as deputy chairman of the firm together with Frankie Tay Thiam Siew as executive director. Many Malaysians will remember Lingam from media reports that stirred a controversy when it was revealed he was photographed holidaying with the former chief justice Eusoff Chin in New Zealand in 1994.

The Sun report continued: "Datuk Lingam and Frankie Tay will now guide The Sun in establishing itself as a responsible newspaper to the nation."

Media analysts who are used to reading between the lines of local newspaper reports would have understood what the words "responsible newspaper" in the Malaysian context imply.

One such "responsible newspaper", the New Straits Times (circulation about 140,000), self-righteously slammed its rival in a scathing "Comment" piece: "... overzealous journalism and sensationalism should never be the selling point. And newspapers must be accountable to their readers. As has been said, the content of anything that sells itself as journalism should be free of any motive other than to inform its customers or readers. It should not be influenced by anything else, not even dollars and cents."

Accountability? Free of any motive other than to inform? Hardly the noble traits of the mainstream media in Malaysia, which are controlled by ruling political parties or firms friendly to them. Coming from the New Straits Times, those remarks sounded hypocritical. Like its English-language rivals, The Star (circulation about 290,000) and The Sun (circulation about 80,000), the NST is hardly a bastion of media freedom and responsibility to begin with, providing little space for dissenting views.

These mainstream media did not distinguish themselves - to put it mildly - when it counted the most: in their coverage of the ouster of former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim in 1998, of the reformasi demonstrations that followed, and of what was billed as the dirtiest general election campaign in 1999. What's more, in 1998 and 1999, the mainstream media indulged in sensationalist coverage of the worst kind featuring unsubstantiated allegations against the jailed Anwar Ibrahim and his associates in a sordid orgy of character assassinations.

Not surprisingly, the circulation of the NST slumped and the paper was forced to initiate cosmetic changes to the daily's format followed later by changes to top editorial staff. With one eye on its alarming bottom line ("It should not be influenced by anything else, not even dollars and cents"?) and locked in a circulation battle with its rivals, the NST appears to have been forced to expand, even if only slightly, its coverage of dissenting and opposition views.

For once, "the market" is forcing certain newspapers to expand the limited range of views provided - even if it is all still within the overall agenda of "manufacturing consent".

Before the Christmas Day fiasco, The Sun, for all its shortcomings, was the breeziest - relatively speaking, of course - among the staid mainstream media. Now what little that was left of media freedom has been dealt another blow with the removal of key Sun editorial staff - coming only months after the takeover of two independent Chinese-language newspapers by a ruling coalition party.

Not exactly the most auspicious way for the Malaysian media to usher in the New Year.

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