Mainstream media coverage of Anwar’s appeal gives credence to US Human Rights Report of selective and biased  journalism as a result of intimidatory press laws

Media Statement
by Lim Kit Siang

(Petaling Jaya, Wednesday): The mainstream media coverage of the appeal of former Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim against his conviction and six-year jail term on four counts of corrupt practices before the Court of Appeal since Monday gives credence to the 1999 United States State Department Report on Human Rights Practices in Malaysia of selective and biased journalism as a result of intimidatory press laws forcing most of the print and electronic media into practising self-censorship.

During the trial spanning six months from November 1998 to April 1999, the mainstream media went to town with their coverage devoting several pages to the salacious reports every day, although half the evidence (i.e. half the mountainous press reports) were later expunged by the trial judge as irrelevant to the trial.

A fair and balanced media would have given full coverage to Anwar’s appeal at  the Court of Appeal, especially the 29 grounds of appeal submitted by the defence team, devoting at least two full pages a day to the arguments.

However, the mainstream media coverage of Anwar’s appeal had been minimal. A typical mainstream media coverage of Anwar’s appeal is The New Straits Times which has given less than  a column of its   six-column page each day for Anwar’s appeal  proceedings as compared to pages of coverage during the trial.

This is most unfair to Anwar after the blaze of reporting of  "irrelevant testimony" against Anwar during the six-month-long trial but fair play and justice are strange words to  the Malaysian mainstream media, which  are motivated by other forces and factors at the command of the powers-that-be.

In fact, after the November general election, words had been sent out to all local mass media to play down the Anwar trial - in contrast to before general election, when the official agenda is to give maximum publicity in the media to the prosecution case in the trial.

This is a sad day for Malaysian journalism. How can the Malaysian government or journalists accuse the United States State Department of  making a baseless  report on human rights abuses  in Malaysia when it referred to "some important legal limitations" which allow the Government  to "restrict freedom of expression and intimidate most of the print and electronic media into practicing self-censorship" - when they are true and reflective of the real situation of the press in the country?

In February 1999,  the United Nations  Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression had issued a report stating that freedom of opinion is curtailed systematically in Malaysia.

I for one will agree with the following sections in the 1999 US Human Rights Report on Malaysia on restrictions of freedom of speech and press:

"The Prime Minister and other senior officials continued to ascribe seditious or treasonous motives to critics of government policies. Although many persons still criticized the Government publicly, the Government's statements made many persons more cautious in exercising their rights of free speech.

"In August Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi warned that political parties that raise sensitive issues and cause an ‘undesirable situation’ would be charged under the Sedition Act. However, government and ruling party officials sometimes make statements on sensitive racial and religious issues with no fear of being charged with sedition. For example, on the same day that the Deputy Prime Minister threatened to invoke the Sedition Act, he stated that voting for the opposition would be ‘disastrous’ for ethnic Malays."

"The Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984 limits press freedom…Government power over license renewal and other policies create an atmosphere that inhibits independent or investigative journalism and results in extensive self-censorship.

"The English and Malay mainstream press provide generally laudatory, uncritical coverage of government officials and policies, and usually give only limited and selective coverage to political views of the opposition or political rivals. Editorial opinion almost always reflects government positions on domestic and international issues."

The US report referred to a petition signed by 581 journalists from 11 newspapers and released on May 3, 1999 World Press Freedom Day, which urged the Government to repeal the Printing Presses and Publications Act.

The petition stated that government controls on the press had resulted in self-censorship and diminished the credibility of the mainstream press.

These violations to free expression and a free press must be ended, not because they are contained in the US State Department Report, but because they  abridge and diminish the rights of Malaysians to enjoy the full fundamental liberties enshrined in the Malaysian Constitution to be citizens of a democratic nation.


*Lim Kit Siang - DAP National Chairman