(Petaling Jaya, Wednesday): I call on the Acting Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim to overrule the Home Ministry so that he does not start his two-month Acting Prime Ministership by imposing unprecedented control and censorship on press freedom in Malaysia.
It is most shocking that at a time when the government is promoting Information Technology and an open society and asking Malaysians to keep abreast with the developments of the Information Revolution, the Home Ministry should be resorting to unprecedented controls and censorship of the mass media muzzling press freedom in the country.
The latest incident is the China Press affair, arising from the written complaint of the Gerakan President and Primary Industry Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Lim Keng Yaik to the Home Ministry on misreporting by the newspaper during the Teluk Intan by-election.
Keng Yaik described the China Press report on his saying that the Gerakan did not need the votes of the Chinese to win the seat as "the major cause of defeat" for the Barisan Nasional in the Teluk Intan by-election on May 17, attributing to it the loss of 20 per cent support of the Chinese community.
Last Saturday, May 21, 1997, Keng Yaik announced that he had so far "only complained verbally" to the acting Prime Minister, "but I will push for more action".
It is clear that Keng Yaik has succeeded in his "push for more action", for China Press had, on pain of closure, agreed to be placed on "probation for good behaviour" for six months, during which period it would not criticise or print any material critical or embarrassing of Barisan Nasional leaders.
The implication is that China Press can print any article or report critical or embarrassing to the DAP and other Opposition parties, but if it should cause offence to any Barisan Nasional leader, then its KDN is at stake!
Two daily columns in the China Press were also immediately removed, not because these columnists had sometimes made very unflattering remarks about DAP leaders, but because they had sometimes been very scathing in their writings about MCA and Gerakan leaders.
This is the first time in Malaysian press history that such an "innovative" press control and censorship regulation has been introduced in the country which will further mar Malaysia’s international reputation as a maturing democracy which is free, open, vibrant and confident of itself.
Malaysia’s reputation for press freedom, like our international ranking on corruption, is not very high although press freedom is guaranteed by Article 10 of the Malaysian Constitution on freedom of speech.
Just as M. Magendran and N. Mohanadas have done Malaysia proud by being the first two Malaysians to plant the Malaysian flag on Mount Everest, notching a world-class achievement recognised by all for the country, Malaysia must be able to achieve world recognition as having a free press, whether viewed from East or West, North or South.
Malaysia has come out very unfavourably in the latest survey by Freedom House, which conducts an annual survey of print and broadcast media in most countries of the world, measuring press freedom by assessing the impact of laws, administrative decisions and economic or political influences on the content of the news media.
The countries surveyed are placed in three categories of having (i) a free press; (ii) a partyly free press; and (iii) a "not-free" press. Malaysia is grouped in the third category of having a "not-free press".
This categorisation of Malaysia in the "not-free press" group was made before the China Press affair, which will give the country more adverse international publicity about very clumsy and inept attempts to control and censor the press in Malaysia.
In actual fact, Keng Yaik was only looking for a convenient scapegoat for the defeat of the Gerakan candidate in a seat which is regarded as a Barisan stronghold which it could not lose and the DAP could not win.
It is ridiculous for Keng Yaik to claim that the so-called China Press misreport caused support for the Gerakan from the Chinese community in Teluk Intan to drop 20 per cent.
In actual fact, with or without the so-called China Press misreport, the margin of defeat of the Gerakan candidate would not be very different. Was it because of the China Press that the Gerakan and MCA members inTeluk Intan refused to vote for the Gerakan candidate? What about the Malay and Indian voters - were they also influenced by the China Press for not casting their votes for the Gerakan candidate?
Just to save his "political face" not only for losing an "unlose-able" Barisan seat, but with a whopping 16,884 turnaround of the voters from a 13,968-vote Barisan majority in 1995 to a 2,916-vote DAP majority, creating a Richter 6 "political earthquake" in the Teluk Intan by-election, Keng Yaik is prepared to go down in Malaysian press history for being responsible for a very subtle but nonethless very insidious attack on press freedom in Malaysia.
The question is why should Anwar Ibrahim allow such very subtle but very insidious attack on press freedom in Malaysia to be introduced during his term as Acting Prime Minister of Malaysia? This is an "innovation" no democrat could be proud of.
I call on Anwar to review and overrule the Home Ministry by dismantling such a novel but completely unacceptable fetter on press freedom in Malaysia. I also call on local journalists associations and all international press associations concerned about press freedom to speak up loud and clear to express their concern at the latest control and censorship undermining press freedom in Malaysia.
Furthermore, I would suggest to Anwar to commission an independent inquiry as to why the Barisan Nasional lost so badly in Teluk Intan - whether it was caused primarily by the China Press as claimed by Keng Yaik, or whether the China Press was really insignificant because of more fundamental and deep-seated political, social, economic and governmental factors which the Barisan Nasional leadership ignores at its own peril.