– Kee Thuan Chye
The Malaysian Insider
December 17, 2013
The relatively outspoken weekly newspaper The Heat has been given a show-cause letter by the Home Ministry and reportedly told to tone down its fervour. And this has come about only three months since the paper sparked to life in early September.
This shows how tightly the Government still controls the media, and how difficult it is for any print publication to be critical of the ruling party. It also blows to bits the promise that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak made in September 2011 that he wanted to establish in Malaysia “the best democracy”. Unless, of course, he has a radically different understanding of “democracy”.
The online news website The Malaysian Insider had reported that the action taken by the ministry was believed to have been prompted by The Heat’s front-page article on Najib and his wife Rosmah Mansor’s “spendthrift” use of public funds – on overseas trips, utilities in their official residence, the hiring of consultants, the use of the Government’s private jets, allocations for the Prime Minister’s Department.
The article, which came out in the weekly’s November 23-29 issue, provided relevant facts and gave a detailed summary of what has been spent. It also included criticisms from several quarters of Najib’s extravagance, and placed the issue in its current context of worsening economic times and the need for belt-tightening by all Malaysians. I have yet to see another report that so comprehensively puts the issue in such clear perspective.
Moreover, the issue is one that is already out there in the public sphere and deserves to be discussed in any true democracy. And we the public have a right to question how our money is being spent. So why should the ministry take exception to it?
Is it because Rosmah is being criticised here? Well, when you view it together with the recent alleged directive from the Prime Minister’s Office to Astro Awani to remove from its website a report about a blog post that satirically called for Najib to make Rosmah a minister, you will probably think there is a connection.
But even so, whether it is Rosmah being criticised or otherwise, we cannot tolerate such authoritarian interference with the media. It’s now 2013, coming to 2014, not 1984 and the era of Mahathir Mohamad anymore.
The central problem that this episode shows is that the Home Ministry still has too much power over the print media, despite the amendments made to the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) last year, amendments that the Government-owned mainstream media made a big deal of by saying it showed Najib’s sincerity in liberalising our democratic space. What tosh!
The truth is, the amendments are little more than eyewash. The minister still has the power to break any newspaper or publication by simply revoking its licence. And by dint of this, he holds every publication to ransom. This contravenes Article 10 of the Federal Constitution, which guarantees our right to freedom of speech and expression.
By right, we should not require a licence to publish. The requirement merely serves to create fear in editors and publishers of losing such a licence, as when they are given show-cause letters by the Home Ministry.
“These show-cause letters,” the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) has pointed out, “may … be used as a political tool by any political party in government should a newspaper run foul of its voter-base.” The way it looks, the Government is wielding that tool against The Heat right now.
Making amendments to the PPPA is therefore not enough. If Najib wants to be sincere and truthful about giving us “the best democracy”, he has no other option but to repeal the PPPA.
To judge how effective a show-cause letter can be, you only need to go through the latest December 14-20 issue of The Heat. You will see how the editors have already blunted the paper’s bite and kept to publishing relatively ‘safe’ material. It’s not quite the same Heat of the preceding weeks any more.
The main stories this issue are not about politics. And while The Heat may defend this by saying that it’s not a political paper anyway but a current affairs one, it may be hard put to justify why it doesn’t even make mention of the Umno general assembly that was arguably the main event last week. Or, Najib’s travesty of Mandela’s struggle and reputation by saying that Umno shares the “same cause”. How could such significant happenings be totally ignored?
Furthermore, in its “Newsmakers” section, where it was wont to lash out with no minced words at the foibles of ministers and lackeys, it has taken almost an opposite turn, like even complimenting ruling party politicians for trivialities. I hope its lauding of Terengganu Menteri Besar Ahmad Said for buying bread from a truck to give to motorists who were stuck in a jam was meant as a send-up more than anything else – to subtly protest against its current predicament.
In the same section, where you once got stuff like “Don’t pick a fight with the Culture and Tourism Minister – he may just kill you. … Seems like we now have a gangster in our Cabinet.”, you now get:
“Many can follow Hishammuddin’s example and give up nicotine for a healthier lifestyle.”
“Tourism remains a big money earner for Malaysia and an assurance that this country is safe will go a long way in helping to attract visitors.”
“Hanif’s concern is understandable. Most Malaysians do not want to hurt each other’s feelings. However, blaming social media for the current situation is a little shallow… To his credit, Hanif stopped short of calling for a ban on alternative media.”
Sounding sappy, stating the mundanely obvious, bending over backwards to find something positive to say – all that seems to be part of the doctor’s orders for cooling down The Heat. And if that’s not enough, wait till you read the article ‘The challenge of bringing talent home’. The fawning angle that The Heat now takes, as can be seen in that article, might turn the stomachs of intelligent readers who have a perceptive grasp of the brain drain reality – and other Malaysian problems.
It’s sad to see that The Heat has traded its adults’ gloves for kids’ ones. It would be sadder if its new tone and format were to become entrenched. Then the weekly would become nothing more than a virtual replica of the mainstream media publications.
When that happens, it would have given in to a government that fears public opinion, disregards our right to freedom, reneges on what it promises, and behaves like a bully. That would be the saddest thing of all.
I ardently hope, however, that I’m just being overly pessimistic and that The Heat has the resilience to continue pursuing its true purpose, undeterred by anti-democracy elements, with its latest issue being only a one-off diversion from its norm. I hope that in the coming weeks, if not by next week itself, The Heat will blaze back with its original fire and shame the devil with the truth.
I’ll be the first to celebrate that. – Yahoo! News, December 17, 2013.
* Kee Thuan Chye is the author of The Elections Bullshit.