By Kee Thuan Chye
The public forum ‘Bebaskan Media/Free the Media’, organised by Gerakan Media Marah (Geramm) and held in Kuala Lumpur last Friday, packed a full house and signified something positive – the coming together of journalists to speak up for media freedom. What is now needed from this talk is an action plan.
It seems to me that the crux of any action to be taken would be to fight for the repeal of the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA). And the time to take action would be now, amidst the white heat generated by the Home Ministry’s suspension of the news weekly The Heat, under the provisions of that Act.
This suspension is, however, done without good reason, and has thus provided journalists with a just cause. For The Heat has indeed broken no laws to deserve such punishment. And as such, journalists must show up the ministry’s whimsical use of power and expose the insidious implications of the PPPA, and strive once and for all to break the Government’s tyranny over the media.
To do so, however, they must be united. And the fight must involve journalists from the print media as well as they are the ones directly affected by the PPPA. Not only that, these journalists should hail from publications of all the main language streams.
Unfortunately, their presence was sorely missed at Friday’s forum. Of the six speakers, none was a print journalist. Three of them came from the online media, which is not subservient to the PPPA. In fact, the online media is free from censorship, thanks to a promise made by the Government years ago that it would not censor the Internet.
One of the speakers explained that print media personnel are generally wary of expressing their views against Government dictates publicly for fear of reprisals by their company bosses. This is true. These days, too, a print journalist posting comments on Facebook that are critical of the Government may indeed be hauled up by their editorial superiors and told to stop it. Even a show of sympathy for causes like Bersih seeking free and fair elections is discouraged. It is as if these journalists are not recognised as free citizens who are entitled to their own political opinions, outside of their work.
Thus, an unhealthy schism divides the media fraternity. Those print journalists who are in the higher echelons of management – of which the editor-in-chief is at the apex – are unwilling to rock the boat, not even for the sake of editorial integrity, professional ethics and the freedom to do their work like journalists should. They are the beneficiaries of the system and have therefore no wish to lose their chauffeur-driven BMWs, high salaries, stock options, connections to the people in high places from which they can derive other perks, and what-have-you.
But whatever idea they may have of possessing power is merely an illusion. In reality, they are beholden to the political masters who own the newspapers they work for. In my 21 years at the Umno-owned New Straits Times, I have seen how editors-in-chief came and went as the party changed presidents, and how some could be dropped if the president felt they were not giving 110 per cent support.
I have also seen how the PPPA tightened its knot around the testicles of editors-in-chief, metaphorically speaking, such that they ended up being experts at self-censorship, second-guessing what would please or displease their political masters, becoming puppets who received instructions from higher up on what to print or not to print.
And yet they will be the last to fight for the repeal of the PPPA. They will say privately that they are dead against it, and they may write an article or two in their regular column paying lip service to the need for more liberalisation of the media, keeping the idea of liberalisation as vague as they can, going only as far as their inappreciable guts will allow them to. But when it comes to the crunch, they will side with the Government instead.
Be that as it may, they must nonetheless be part of the fight for media freedom if it is to gain any chance of succeeding. If they do not take part, if they do not at least give their blessing to their subordinates to take part with the reassurance that no punishment will be inflicted on the latter for doing so, the Government will not take the fight seriously. It will not be shaken to repeal the PPPA if only online journalists are clamouring for it.
So, much as Friday’s forum marked a positive step forward in the direction of media freedom, it also highlighted the colossal difficulty of achieving it.
I asked from the floor why the editorial big shots of the print media were not present. Where were Wong Chun Wai and June Wong of The Star? What about Syed Nadzri Syed Harun of New Straits Times? Abdul Aziz Ishak of Utusan Malaysia? Mahfar Ali of Berita Harian? Mustapa Omar of Harian Metro? Siew Nyoke Chow of Sin Chew Daily? I asked if these people would get involved.
Someone else asked, “Who will lead the fight?”
To me, it should be the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), since it represents print journalists. But no representative from the NUJ executive committee was among the speakers.
The president of the NUJ, Chin Sung Chew, has, to his credit, publicly commented on the suspension of The Heat and said it “contradicted what a true democratic government would uphold and stand for”, but he should have been at the forum. He should be leading the charge. If he does so, it will be a signal to NUJ members to stand up and be counted, regardless of what their editorial bosses think.
In fact, the NUJ could call for a strike. When was the last time it called for one? Surely, something as important as the freedom of its members to do their work without fear or favour is worthy of such action?
Furthermore, it’s very clear that the Home Ministry has not done the right thing in suspending The Heat. On December 21, two days after it gave the suspension order and after facing considerable public pressure, the ministry eventually declared its reason for the suspension. It said the weekly had violated provisions in the printing permit. But on December 23, The Heat came out to clarify that the ministry had actually approved its application since September to change from being a publication in the “Economy/Social” category to the “Current Affairs” one, so there was no violation of any provisions. So who is lying?
In any case, the editor-in-chief of The Heat was also summoned to Putrajaya and told to tone down the weekly’s reports. Why should this be so if the suspension was related to category-changing? How is the tone of The Heat revelant to that?
The ministry also claimed that it had sent The Heat two show-cause letters but received no reply to either. In response, however, The Heat said it did reply to both letters. So, again, who is lying? Would The Heat dare to lie and jeopardise its chances of getting reinstated?
Anyway, The Heat also said the ministry had assured it that the appeal to lift the suspension would be considered in a “fair and prompt manner”. From this, I think chances are the ministry will lift the suspension pretty soon. Partly because of the public pressure. But even if this happens, the fight for media freedom must continue.
Journalists from the print, online and even broadcast media must come together and revive that rallying cry that many Malaysians subscribed to at the last general election – Ini kali lah!
Yes, indeed. Ini kali lah! There’s no time but now to fight for media freedom. So strike while the heat is hot!
* Kee Thuan Chye is the author of the book The Elections Bullshit, available in bookstores.