14 January, 2008

Press freedom in Malaysia and Indonesia

The Malaysian information minister's lash out at the Indonesian media's apparent aggressiveness in reporting Malaysia-Indonesia ties were thorny seems to have backfired.

The statement by the minister has in fact further strained an already icy relationship between the so-called big brother and her alleged arrogant neighbor.

This diplomatic boo-boo all but extinguishes the quiet diplomatic efforts by Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak just one week before.

Malaysian mainstream media had splashed news of the exchanges of Malaysian journalist to Indonesian news agencies in an attempt to soften the perceived Malaysia bashing by the Indonesian media.

As if part of a complete package on damage control between the two countries, an UMNO-Golkar meeting had concluded, on the establishment of a joint committee, to this year actively revitalize bilateral relations in the spirit of an Umno-Golkar memorandum of understanding signed earlier. The MoU was ceremoniously witnessed by Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi.

All that effort seems diminished by this latest scurry of attacks on Indonesia's empowered press.

The reverse effect seems to have overtaken events with Malaysians themselves, lamenting on the limited freedom of the press and the emasculation of its news agencies.

The Malaysian information minister's remarks have elicited a heated counterblast from Malaysia's lively blogs.

The bloggers are now in combat mode ahead of imminent elections and were quick to point out to the Minister that his powers over Indonesia were none and Malaysia's media should be allowed to uphold its sacred journalistic duty to expose the truth and provide the check and balances essential to democracy.

The problem in Malaysia is not that you can't say what you want, its just that you have no where to say it.

The mainstream media -- be it broadcast television or radio stations, even the print media -- are all owned by the Government or the major component parties of the ruling Coalition (Barisan Nasional).

Malaysians often read between the lines when trying to make sense of the current political scenario. They turn toward popular news blogs like Malaysia Today to get the real news.

Even local journalists have been cautioned by the minister not to refer to breaking news posted on blogs or carried by the internet.

This should have been enough to draw attention to futile attempts to silence the voices of the Malaysian people.

The Indonesian media's enfranchisement is the envy of Malaysians. No one wants a restricted press here. The Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, severely circumscribes the professionalism of local journalists and media advocates.

The requirement to annually obtain a license for publication saw, for example, the Malaysian Catholic Newspaper, The Herald put at knife-edge over its controversial use of the word 'Allah' to denote God.

More than a theological debate, this was a challenge by the new media against the old media.

Angry comments by Muslims and non-Muslims alike spurred by bloggers are posted all over the internet and seem to gravitate around the issue of the restraint over the freedom of the press in Malaysia.

It appears Malaysian voters will have their say. Former Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim's interview by CK Andy on his talk show K! broadcasted by news agency Metro TV, was as not widely known of here, until the sensational statements made by the Malaysian information minister.

Former prime minister Anwar Ibrahim's views are sought-after here because he dares speak up against the status quo.

While many Malaysians may still do not trust the former deputy premier, his opinions on Malaysian politics and world views on Islam, which is courted by the foreign media, is then mostly reproduced in blogs in the Malaysian blogosphere or hurriedly downloaded on "You Tube".

It is perhaps this very repression of the functions of the local press and the lack of privilege to address the mainstream media in Kuala Lumpur that will eventually lend more popularity to Anwar Ibrahim.

Perhaps the treatment of Malaysia's fallen son is not as shocking as that of former political strongman and architect of modern Malaysia, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad.

The feisty veteran politician has hit back at the current administration by calling it a police state.

Mahathir himself has had to bet on the new media which has been thrilled to reproduce his attacks and perspectives on Malaysian and global issues.

Dr. Mahathir and the new media appear to have had quite an impact on the discontented rumblings of the electorate on the ground.

The information minister, now having riled up the Indonesian media and having failed to garner much support from the Rakyat or citizens of Malaysia, must attempt to diffuse the tension.

If the Indonesian press, as he claims, has prophetic influences over the Indonesian people, then perhaps he should consider a more amicable tone when dealing with the press in Jakarta.

An apology could well serve to enhance diplomatic efforts and dispel the stigma of the "Ugly Malaysian".

Ordinary Malaysians have not an iota of disdain for their "Saudara" in Indonesia. The contentious issues that underlie tensions could be more effectively dealt with through greater diplomatic sensibility and friendliness.

The minister's failure to extend a formal apology could cause a bandwagon effect as an upshot from his ill-advised criticism of the media in Indonesia.

As the religious and ethnic commonality that bonds Muslim-Malaysians to their Indonesian kin thin out, the Malaysian minister of information will have to bear greater responsibility for his actions.

By :Imran Yacob

The writer is a trained lawyer based in Kuala Lumpur. He can be contacted at imran.yacob@gmail.com.

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