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Freedom Of Press Or Freedom To Press? - MGG Pilllai
By web aNtu

21/1/2000 9:39 am Fri

Freedom Of The Press Or Freedom To Press?

The abrupt departure this week of Dato' Kadir Jasin as the New Straits Times' editor-in-chief has little to do with press freedom; he is a human sacrifice the Prime Minister offered, in place of himself, to cool down internal convulsions within his political party, UMNO, after the general elections focussed attention once again on the damage Dato' Seri Anwar did to it. The governing National Front coalition, which UMNO led, romped home with a three-quarters majority but with sharply declining support within the Malay ground, especially in the Malay heartland. Dato' Kadir as a political appointee of a newspaper it controls walked perpetually on a greasy tightrope during the 12 years he was editor-in-chief and, like his immediate predecessors, slipped and fell not because he was incompetent or disloyal (he was neither) but he edited a newspaper in his last 18 months with both hands tied. He would have gone no matter what, the only surprise the timing. The Anwar imbroglio has claimed another victim. The mainstream newspapers UMNO controls -- the Utusan, New Straits Times, Berita Harian groups -- lose circulation as they become virtual party newspapers as readers demand fairer coverage. To shore up the government's image vis-a-vis Anwar, the Prime Minister promised financial help when editors complained of declining circulations because of their open hostility to the ousted deputy prime minister and slavish, often unthinking, support for the government. One NST former editor-in-chief, dismissed as Dato' Kadir was this week, was bluntly told his "100 per cent" loyalty to the Prime Minister proved his disloyalty; at least "150 per cent" was expected. In the Mahathir years, the NST has had as many editors-in-chief as he has had deputy prime ministers.

So, the Kadir Jasin affair should not be viewed only within the narrow prism of press freedom. Press freedom cannot exist in a vaccuum, especially if its practitioners are uninterested. A year ago, local journalists who, in response to a UNESCO project, stirringly demanded for more press freedom, with the media in hand to record the government's enthusiastic acceptance of it. These journalists decided, in this instance, to keep quiet about the fate of the editors of the New Straits Times and Harakah, the latter charged with sedition. Both the government and the journalist fraternity in Malaysia ignore press freedom, jumping to its defence only when journalists in Ougadougou are hounded. So, freedom of the press has become the freedom to press. The government once regularly threatened journalists with restricting press freedom if they misused it, often "misused" means fairer reporting of opposition views. The Malaysian press is a convenient target of attack when the Malay cultural heartland rebels. May 13 riots, the 1988 crackdown, the 1999 post-election blues all came with it attacks on the media. But within the 30 years, the Malay becomes culturally confident, well-educated, prepared to challenge the status quo if he thinks it wrong. The UMNO-led coalition government, however, does not accept this, and believes they are misled by anti-national rascals like He Who Must Be Destroyed At All Cost. It does not understand, nor come to terms with, the tremendous mental changes within the Malay, and talk down to him. He resents it. And deserts the government.

By contrast, the opposition PAS newspaper, Harakah, is in trouble precisely because it judged the mood correctly. From 70,000 a year ago, it now sells 300,000. Readers want comment as well as news. And Harakah provided it. Its editor is charged with sedition for carrying a view it would not have accepted in its pages only two years ago. His conviction could lead to its ban. And to the government's discomfiture, it reacted to these pressures by taking the government's challenge to it to be a daily newspaper. A daily newspaper raises the ante. It makes nonsense of the government's insistence that party newspapers could only be sold to party members. The government amended the laws over the years to restrict the opposition party's avenues to spread their message. So they moved into the Internet to spread their message out of official control. With the pressure on Harakah, it expanded its Internet version to a daily. If the paper should be banned, but the Internet version continues, as it certainly would, it damages the government even further. The government must accept that times have changed, and people want to be able to make up their own minds and be exposed to differing points of view

Does one have to be a party member to understand what it party thinks? Why should not a citizen of no political leaning make up his own mind by buying whatever newspaper is on offer to find out for himself what the issues are? Does this mean that one has to be a member of every political party in Malaysia to get to know what they think? Can the government now refuse PAS a licence for a daily newspaper, to be called, I understand, not Harakah but Purnima? When mainstream newspapers cannot compete with a twice-weekly party rag, something seriously is amiss. What then, if it becomes a daily? But this confusion shows how nervous and jittery the government is. Dato' Kadir engineered a revamp of the New Straits Times to make its form and substance like US Today, which covers the world as television news would. But without the wherewithal to pull it off, it becomes even more condescending than ever. Since he is also a key figure in the government's media policy, he became a convenient target. He did not understand the conflicting demands of backing the government implicity right or wrong and of editing a national newspaper; that freedom of the press is not the freedom to press. Now the Prime Minister is ready to act against officials in his party, beginning with the secretary-general himself.

M.G.G. Pillai