Malaysian newspaper terminates critical columns

August 18, 2007

(These efforts by Malaysia to shut down whatever free press is left in Malaysia will eventually see the day when there may be hardly any free press to speak of. Luckily for our good neighbors, they have not yet seen the “salvaging” or execution of the small and sometimes big writers or editors. An example is Jonas Burgos, whose father kept the “Malaya”, an anti-Marcos paper going throughout the Marcos years. Unfortunately, his fathers sins have been visited against him, as he has become one of the most well-known among todays desaparacidos. Even the judicial branch of the Arroyo government cannot make any member of the military summoned by the court appear to testify on this matter. It casts a shadow of of fear among the locals when even their President refuses to come to the aid of the Burgos family. How many more must disappear with little hope of staying alive while under this government? Given the lack of concern by the top leaders of the government, things will worsen before they become better. – mod.)

Alert – Malaysia
17 August 2007
Source: Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)

Newspaper terminates critical columns, reducing plurality in
mainstream media

A major newspaper associated with the ruling party in Malaysia has
terminated two critical columns, further reducing plurality of
voices in the mainstream media that largely mirrors the government
position.

The “New Straits Times” (NST), the second top English daily in the
country, has pulled out Zainah Anwar and Amir Muhammad’s columns,
which last appeared on 27 July and 2 August, respectively.

NST Deputy Group Editor Kamarul Idris Zulkifli confirmed the
cancellation of Zainah’s column but declined to comment when
contacted by a local media rights group, the Centre for Independent
Journalism (CIJ). The columnist, however, said NST had cited lack
of space for non-staff columns.

A former NST journalist and human rights commissioner who was part
of the panel that recommended the adoption of a Freedom of
Information Act, Zainah is now the executive director of Sisters in
Islam (SIS), a vocal Muslim women’s group working on equality and
justice. Her column in NST had promoted the same themes and was one
of the few progressive voices in danger of being drowned in the
largely patriarchal and conservative Muslim-majority society.

Ironically, Zainah’s last column, entitled, “Let’s give freedom a
good Press”, recounted a talk on press freedom and censorship she
gave in 1995, to officers from the Ministry of Home Affairs’
Control of Publications Unit. She had ended the talk recommending
that the archaic censorship department be shut down in the light of
the futility of censorship in the age of information. “[O]f course,
that was the last time I was invited to give a talk to the unit,”
she wrote, little realising that a similar fate would befall her
column.

Her final column had challenged the government to promote a free
press and review all the restrictive press laws “so that mainstream
journalism remains a credible source of information in the face of
challenges from new media”.

“Those with authority, expertise and qualification can no longer
monopolise the right to tell us what is right and what is wrong.
They have to compete for their voice to be heard and their
influence to hold sway in a truly free marketplace of ideas,” she
wrote, apparently not swaying the newspaper’s top executive, though.

Amir, too, had written for NST before from 1987 to 1999,
establishing a reputation through his column as one of the
country’s brightest writers, offering witty and irreverent
dissections of contemporary Malaysia. He crossed the official line
after he implied in an analogy that a change of government was due
ahead of a crucial general election when then prime minister Dr
Mahathir Mohamad faced the worst challenge to his leadership
following a bitter fallout with his popular deputy Anwar Ibrahim.

Amir ventured into filmmaking soon after and gained notoriety when
two of his films, “The Last Communist” and its sequel “Village
People Radio Show”, were banned for portraying a different take on
the much-demonised communists who had also fought to liberate the
country from the British colonialists in the 1940s.

His reappearance in NST in 2006 had been seen as a sign of the
media reopening under the new administration of Prime Minister
Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. However, his column was still being censored
and he had made a game of spotting the difference in the originals
posted on his blog ( http://clicks.aweber.com/z/ct/?YsI2uByHUd91uoS9R2_YpQ ).

NST’s action in removing two critical opinion leaders in the midst
of recent government bans on media discussion of religion,
ethnicity and the constitution reflects the Malaysian mainstream
media’s oft-discarded role of providing a plurality of opinions and
a forum for public criticism.

“[This] is another worrying sign that freedom of expression and
information are being curbed at a time when Malaysians need more
discussion and information in the run-up to elections, [expected to
be held by early 2008],” said CIJ, a SEAPA partner, in a 13 August
media release ( http://clicks.aweber.com/z/ct/?OLbSpaf2a4l_p2WIi.1EPQ )

It is also a disservice to Malaysians who will be celebrating their
50th anniversary of independence on 30 August 2007, with two less
public voices of reason.

————————————————————
Southeast Asian Press Alliance.
538/1 Samsen Rd., Dusit, Bangkok 10300.
Tel: 66-2-2435579, 66-2-2435373, Fax: 66-2-2448749

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