(Petaling Jaya, Monday): Last month, I said that DAP will convene a meeting of political parties, NGOs and prominent Malaysians to examine and study the threat of a biased mass media to democracy and the development of a civil society in Malaysia.
In the past, electronic and printed mass media which are in the stable of ownership, management and control of the various ruling coalition parties show the true colours of their bias, spleen, total unscrupulousness and lack of the most basic journalistic principles against opposition parties and Opposition leaders only during the short general elections campaign period.
There is now a radical departure from this past practice, as there are clear signs that such bias, spleen, total unscrupulousness and lack of the most basic journalistic principles are more and more evident in certain mass media, although there are no indications yet as to when general election would be held.
Recent examples are the attempts by certain mass media to slant and misrepresent the DAPís stand on the Islamic state issue and the Berita Harianís totally irresponsible and unethical journalism for three consecutive days last week when it slanted and even concocted news to misrepresent and mislead its readers about the prison conditions of DAP Deputy Secretary-General and MP for Kota Melaka, Lim Guan Eng, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) Fact-Finding Mission Report to Malaysia on Guan Engís case and the resolution of the IPU Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians in Geneva on 1-4 February 1999.
Todayís New Straits Times provide another example of the shocking lack of responsible and ethical journalism in Malaysia.
From todayís New Straits Times, the most important news yesterday was the report which was put on the top of the front-page, headlined "DAP assemblyman, branch chairmen and members quit party", which is put above the story "BN presents 11 new faces" for the Sabah state general elections, and regarded as even more important than the minor third story on the front-page "Rahim admits hitting Anwar after grave provocation".
Only journalists who have no or not allowed to exercise their journalistic sense can rate the resignation of a DAP State Assemblyman as even more important than the admission by the former Inspector-General of Police, Tan Sri Rahim Noor that he had assaulted former Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim when the latter was blindfolded and handcuffed! At least, the journalists in the Sun and the Star are not so blinkered. The Sun had the most proper journalistic sense with its front-page headline of "Rahim did it", with Star coming a honourable second, also with the front-page headline "RAHIM DID IT".
To serve its political agenda, the New Straits Times even downplayed and pushed to second page the story, "Dr. M arrives in Bangladesh for summit of new economic bloc"!
The New Straits Timesí political slant and unprofessional treatment of news was illustrated by its total black-out of three activities involving the DAP yesterday - the fifth nation-wide toll plazas protest against unfair highway privatisation and unfair highway tolls, the gathering by a thousand Malaysians of all races, religions and political beliefs, at the Kajang Prison yesterday to wish Guan Eng a Happy Chinese New Year and to let him know that he has not been forgotten by Malaysians and the ADIL gathering of some 5,000 to 10,000 people at Taman Pelangi, Sentul last evening where Opposition and NGO leaders spoke, despite continuous pouring rain!
The New Straits Times coverage today has underlined the urgency of educating Malaysians as to the irresponsible and unethical manner certain mass media are carrying out their important role and responsibilities to inform Malaysians as to what is happening in the country and the world.
For this reason, a National Conference on Mass Media, Human Rights, Democracy and a Civil Society will be held on April 3, 1999 to promote responsible and ethical journalism in Malaysia. The New Straits Times editor, Datuk Kadir Jasin, will be invited to the Conference to justify the NSTís front-page treatment today.
The Berita Harian editor will also be invited to defend and reply to the very serious charge that it had slanted and even concocted news to misrepresent and mislead its readers about the prison conditions of DAP Deputy Secretary-General and MP for Kota Melaka, Lim Guan Eng, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) Fact-Finding Mission Report to Malaysia on Guan Engís case and the resolution of the IPU Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians in Geneva on 1-4 February 1999.
Such a national conference, not only to examine and study the threat of a biased mass media to democracy and the development of a civil society in Malaysia, but to promote responsible and ethical mass media as well as restore the freedom of opinion and expression entrenched in the Malaysian Constitution, has become even more urgent and imperative following two adverse international reports on human rights in Malaysia.
Last Friday, the United States Department of State released its 1998 Country Report on Human Rights Practices in Malaysia, which referred to the "worsening" human rights record of the Malaysian government which "stifled freedom of expression" and "led to a high degree of press self-censorship".
The report said:
"Police beat Anwar while he was in detention. Prolonged pretrial detention is a problem. A prominent opposition party leader was imprisoned on questionable sedition and publications charges. The judiciary refused to stay a libel suit against a United Nations special rapporteur, despite the U.N.ís assertion of the rapporteurís immunity and referral of the matter to the International Court of Justice. The trial of a prominent human rights activist on charges arising from her criticisms of conditions in alien detention camps continued. A Western journalist continued to appeal a 1997 conviction for contempt of court stemming from an article that raised questions of possible judicial favoritism. These cases and other factors led to serious doubts over the independence and impartiality of the judiciary."
Even more serious than the U.S. Report, however, is the damning report
by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and
protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Abid Hussain,
which was released in Geneva also on Friday, which said that
freedom of opinion is systematically curtailed in Malaysia, the domestic
press is muzzled, foreign journalists routinely persecuted and demonstrators
Abid Hussain, who paid a five-day visit to Malaysia last October, said he was "deeply concerned" at the extent to which laws such as the Internal Security Act, the Sedition Act and the Printing Presses and Publications Act were used to supress or repress expression and curb peaceful assembly.
As for constraints placed on the media, the UN expert noted that all major daily newspapers were closely linked to political parties in the ruling government, which "makes the Malaysian press dependent on the government."
Newspapers gave uncritical coverage of government officials and only selective coverage to the political views of opposition or political rivals.
"It is also alleged that newspapers and editors close to the opposition parties or supporters of (Anwar) can expect to be censored or subjected to pressure," the report said.
Because of the pressure, the Malaysian press practised self censorship.
In conclusion, the report said: "the current climate, described as a 'climate of fear' by the civil society, inhibits independent or investigative journalism and results in self-censorship of issues that government authorities might consider sensitive."
In urging the Malaysian government to guarantee the right to freedom of expression to its people, he called for the repeal of the Internal Security Act, which allows for prolonged detention without trial , the establishment of an independent media council, and the ratification of the UN's covenant on civil and political rights.
The Cabinet at its meeting on Wednesday should direct the Minister for Information, Datuk Mohamad Rahmat to issue a full statement on the damning report on Malaysia by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Abid Hussain.
Abid Hussain will be invited to the National Conference on Mass Media, Human Rights, Democracy and a Civil Society to defend his report and Datuk Mohamad Rahmat will also be invited to give the governmentís response.