16 December, 2007

Activists demand non-Muslim affair department

Amid simmering protests by ethnic-Indians against alleged marginalisation, activists today asked PM Abdullah Badawi set up a "non-Muslim affairs department" to look into issues faced by other communities in this predominantly Islamic country.

"It is timely for the prime minister to set up a department to look into non-Muslim affairs. What we have in the Prime Minister's department now is a muslim affairs department," A Rajaretnam, Secretary of the Federation of Malaysian Indian Organisation, told reporters. He suggested that such departments should also be created at state levels.

Abdullah met 13 NGOs on Friday to hear their views on various issues faced by ethnic Indians here and "assured us that he will personally address the issues," Rajaretnam said.

Abdullah had asked the NGOs to list out the community's grievances that led to the November 25 demonstration called by Hindu Rights Action Front (Hindraf). Rajaretnam said a committee would be set up to prepare the list within a month.

He said the NGOs had requested Abdullah to set up the separate department as Malaysia was "a multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-religious country". "The premier should look very seriously into the setting up of the department."

2007 in review for Freedom of Expression

Freedom of Expression: 2007 a year of persecutions
By the Centre for Independent Journalism
16 December 2007

Overall, the state of freedom of expression in 2007 marks a further
deterioration compared to 2006. While 2006 was highlighted by the
suspension of newspapers due to the Muhammad caricature, the closure
of public discussion on race and religion initiated by the Article 11
coalition, and the censorship on books and film, 2007 was the year of
persecution and clampdown on people who use alternative platforms for
expression, such as bloggers and street assemblies, and increasing
media interference to tighten the flow of information.

These three trends are distinct in 2007. Editorial interference by the
government were prevalent throughout the year, while harassment of
bloggers increased both in frequency and severity during the second
half of the year. The last two months of 2007 witnessed a surge of
crackdown on public assemblies, culminating in the invocation of the
Internal Security Act (ISA) against five leaders of the Hindus Rights
Action Force (HINDRAF)

Interference in media reporting by official directives, warnings,
"advice" and harassment continued to be one the biggest trends in
Malaysia. The principal givers of directives were the Ministry of
Internal Security, headed by the Prime Minister himself and the
Ministry of Information, headed by Minister Zainuddin Maidin. However,
the year also saw a number of other state actors exerting control over
media content. They ranged from the police and the Law Minister, Nazri
Aziz who tried to bar media coverage on crime, to the Chairman of the
Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, Halim Shafie who
ordered broadcasters against giving airtime for speeches by the
opposition political parties. This was however reversed by the
Minister of Energy, Water and Communication, Lim Keng Yaik.

The "no coverage" orders by the Internal Security Ministry and
Information Ministry to the media were prompted by various issues of
the day, ranging from what was being discussed in the political blogs
to the assemblies by BERSIH (a coalition of political parties and
non-governmental groups on free and fair elections) and HINDRAF. The
bans were sometimes selective. For example, the media was barred from
reporting responses and outcry over the Deputy Prime Minister's
proclamation that Malaysia is an Islamic state despite its secular
constitution. In a letter, it was stated that only the views of the
Prime Minister and his deputy on this issue should prevail in the
print media. This was at the expense of other Barisan Nasional
component parties, which also felt strongly against the DPM's
statement. In the HINDRAF issue, statements by UMNO leaders continued
to receive coverage despite an order by the authorities to play the
issue down. This demonstrates that the level of dominance over the
media is certainly not uniform across the ruling parties. In the
meantime, the Information Ministry has been vocal in attacking bolder
or independent media, despite it having no power to censure the media.
The Minister has twice attacked theSun, an English daily known for
pushing the boundaries. It also attacked international new agency, Al
Jazeera for its live report on police violence during the BERSIH rally.

Editorial interference is also part of the underlying factor for the
general practices of self-censorship among editors. It should be noted
that the list of interference is not exhaustive as there could be many
unreported cases especially the more subtle ones. This could be the
reason for the termination of columnists Amir Muhammad and Zainah
Anwar in the pro-government New Straits Times. The former is an
independent filmmaker while the latter is a women rights activist.
Self-censorship also leads to unethical reporting when certain stories
were slanted heavily towards the government. One example of such bias
is the reporting of public rallies by BERSIH in Batu Burok, Terengganu
and Kuala Lumpur and the one organised by HINDRAF, also in the city.
HINDRAF and BERSIH were subject to severe criticism for using violent
ways, while the reports were silent on the violence by the police and
security forces. Casualties from the civilians' side were severely
underreported. In another case, the media remained silent on RSF Press
Freedom Index, which showed a huge drop in Malaysia's ranking. The
only reports were of the dismissal of the ranking, accusing it of
being a western agenda. Interestingly, state-run Radio 24 (a newly
launched 24-hours news stations) ran an interview with the Centre for
Independent Journalism Executive Director and National Union of
Journalists President, while all private-owned newspapers steered away
from the issue.

The second trend is the intimidation, which shifted from rhetoric in
2006 to actual persecution against bloggers who write about social and
political issues. Two such bloggers were slapped with defamation suits
(Jeff Ooi and Ahiruddin Atan, aka Rocky Bru) by New Straits Times and
its top officials; one (Nathaniel Tan) was detained for four days
because of a link posted by an anonymous commentator; another (Raja
Petra Kamarudin) and his wife, not a blogger, were grilled by the
police after UMNO, the largest ruling party lodged a report under the
Sedition Act; and another (Tian Chua) was questioned under the
Communications and Multimedia Act for posting a photo-montage. Two
other bloggers received threats, one a member of the government
backbenchers club, (Ruhanie Ahmad) and a California-based Malaysian
(M.Bakri Musa). These bloggers were targeted amidst developments that
were threatening the government. Jeff Ooi and Ahiruddin Attan were
sued amidst the feud between Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and
former PM Mahathir Mohammad. Actions against Raja Petra and Nathaniel
came at the time of a rift between the Deputy Minister of Internal
Security and the police force, as allegation of serious corruption in
the police force was gaining momentum. Tian Chua was questioned during
the trial of the murder of Altantuya Sharibuu, a Mongolian. His
photo-montage suggested a link between the Deputy Prime Minister, his
aide Abdul Razak and Altantuya herself, who was purportedly murdered
by Abdul Razak. It is clear from the actions that they were intended
to silence the bloggers from discussing those issues.

Another related case is of a Malaysian student in Taiwan, Wee Meng
Chee, who was under fire for his music video on YouTube, of the
national anthem with rap lyrics, mainly about his feelings concerning
corruption, discrimination and race relations. The government
threatened action under the Sedition Act and the National Anthem Act.
The police however conceded that it was unable to charge Wee for
posting the video abroad. Wee was subsequently compelled to issue an
apology. This incident also brought the issue of ethical reporting to
attention as the story first appeared, in the language of
condemnation, in Harian Metro, a tabloid under the government-link
media conglomerate Media Prima.

The momentum of crackdown on public assemblies gathered since the
rally organized by BERSIH, the coalition for clean and fair election,
at Batu Burok. Live bullets were shot at the crowd resulting in the
injury of two. It is unprecedented in terms of police violence in
controlling the crowd. At the BERSIH and HINDARF rallies, police
instituted elaborate measures to break them by mounting roadblocks,
stopping buses, cars and arresting passengers, firing chemical laced
water and tear gas at the crowd, and arresting participants. In the
BERSIH-organised rally in Kuala Lumpur on 10 November, 34 people were
known to be arrested, while 136 people were arrested during the
HINDRAF rally on 25 November. HINDRAF leader P Uthayakumar, his
brother P. Waythamoorthy and V. Ganabatirau, were arrested under the
Sedition Act two days before the rally. Two more assemblies were held
after that - the lawyers' walk on Human Rights Day and a gathering of
people to support the submission of a memorandum to Members of
Parliament organised by BERSIH. In a new trend, police obtained
restraining orders against participants to the HINDRAF rally and the
Parliament group. These gatherings resulted in six lawyers arrested in
the Human Rights Day celebrations and 26 members of the BERSIH who
tried to go to Parliament to submit a memorandum to protest the
constitutional amendment on the tenure of the Chairman of Election
Commission. Police also started hunting down leaders and re-arresting
participants of the assemblies. Tian Chua from Parti Keadilan Rakyat
(PKR) and Mohamad Sabu from PAS, both part of BERSIH, were arrested on
9 December. Three days earlier, 31 people from the HINDRAF rally were
re-arrested and charged fro attempted murder and attending an illegal
assembly. Uthayakumar himself were arrested, released and re-arrested
on 11 December under the Sedition Act. He and four others were
eventually detained under the Internal Security Act on 13 December.

Another worrying trend that has surfaced is the attacks on journalists
and photographers by state actors or those with suspected links with
state actors. Four such cases were reported in the media. The more
serious is a journalist from the Malaysia Nanban, a Tamil language
daily, who was assaulted by unknown assailants. He has come out of a
coma and has vowed to continue his writings, some of which are
critical of the administration and the leading Indian political party,
the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). His colleague in the northern
territory has also lodged a police report after receiving a death
threat from an unknown person. He was warned to stop writing about the
problem of the Tamil schools or faced the same consequences as his
colleague in coma.

Underlying these problems are the growing concentration of media
ownership, where in this year alone, four Chinese-language dailies –
Sin Chew Daily, Guang Ming Daily, China Press and Nanyang Siang Pau –
were consolidated under one company owned by a timber tycoon, Tiong
Hiew King, known for his close relations with the ruling party.
Ownership of the private media by big corporate companies, and with
close ties to the government, have further impacted on the diversity
and plurality of information in an already controlled environment.

The real danger of little freedom of expression is the risk of
increasing polarization along ethnicities among Malaysians. The gap is
also poised to widen between those who subscribe mostly to the
mainstream media, which often misinform according to the interest of
the powers-that be, and those who access wider source of information
from the internet and foreign media. On the clampdown of assemblies,
those who read mainstream media are only presented with the picture of
harmony under siege and the provocation of one race against the
others. It seriously calls into question the government's wisdom that
freedom of expression must play second to racial harmony. The opposite
proves to be true. Any widening of misunderstanding among races is
traceable to the limitation on freedom of expression, which prevents
issues to be solved.

In this regard, the Centre for Independent Journalism continued to
call for the abolition of repressive laws, the setting up of a
Parliamentary Select Committee on Media Reforms, and for greater
public scrutiny of and engagement with the media.

Prepared by CIJ Advocacy Officer, Yip Wai Fong.

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