Abdullah Ahmad the first to feel the “steel” of Mr. Nice Guy to be the latest NST editor-in-chief to be summarily sacked - but will the new Prime Minister allow the restoration of press freedom to let NST blaze the path to become a free, responsible and independent media group?
by Lim Kit Siang
(Petaling Jaya, Friday): Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad has become the first to feel the “steel” of Mr. Nice Guy to be the latest New Straits Times editor-in-chief to be summarily sacked - a day after he wrote a prophetic column on the new Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi entitled “Nice, but there’s steel, too” and while abroad in Hong Kong to pontificate on the subject “Malaysia under Badawi: Challenges, changes and prospects”.
The sacking of Abdullah has not come as a real shock especially after his speech in Ipoh on “Malaysia – Post Dr. Mahathir” last Friday where he made the not-so-subtle threat that UMNO could lose Pahang in the next general election if Datuk Seri Najib Razak is not made Deputy Prime Minister, which was a clear signal of the UMNO troubles in store for the new Prime Minister if Najib is not named the new No. 2 after the Hari Raya holidays.
The sacking of Abdullah as the New Straits Times Group editor-in-chief was decided by the UMNO management committee meeting last night. Abdullah’s aides told the AFP that there had been indications as early as a year ago from advisors to the new Prime Minister that he would be removed as he was deemed “too independent”.
Without going into the rights and wrongs of the individual decision affecting Abdullah, Malaysians are entitled to ask whether it is healthy for press freedom and Malaysian democracy that a major media group in the country should be in the clutches of the major ruling party in the country, which could exercise directly the powers of hire and fire of its editor-in-chief as well as interfere with its editorial policies and direction?
Abdullah is the third NST editor-in-chief to be summarily sacked by its political masters, the first Munir Majid after the Mahathir-Musa break-up in 1986 and the second Kadir Jasin after the UMNO debacle in the 1999 general election. Journalists can never forget that when Munir protested to Mahathir at the time about his sacking as he was “100 per cent” loyal to him, Munir was told that “100% loyalty” was not enough as what was wanted was “110% loyalty”!
The new Prime Minister should be conscious of the contradiction between UMNO’s summary sacking of the NST editor-in-chief with his call to Barisan Nasional leaders and the people to tell him the truth and his statement that he does not want “apple polishers”.
Is he prepared to make amends for such contradiction in the summary sacking of the NST editor-in-chief by allowing the restoration of press freedom to let NST blaze the path to become a free, responsible and independent media group?
The new Prime Minister should realize that his call to Barisan Nasional leaders and the people to tell him the truth had come like a “breath of fresh air” for the simple reason that unpleasant truths had not been allowed to surface publicly, let alone to reach the ears of the top leadership in government, because of the “culture of silence” and “culture of self-censorship” practised by important sectors of society, including the media.
The summary sacking of the NST editor-in-chief has placed his refreshing call to the people to tell him the truth under a cloud. Is the sacking of the NST editor-in-chief a signal for greater media freedom or greater media control?
The seriousness of this double culture of silence and self-censorship is best exemplified by the deplorable state of press freedom in the country.
In the second worldwide press freedom index of Reporters sans frontiers (Reporters Without Borders) released last month, Malaysia was placed 104th out of 166 countries - firmly at the bottom half of the countries surveyed.
Abdullah should spell out immediately and clearly his government’s new approach to dismantle the controls and fetters on press freedom and the free flow of information so that Malaysians can both speak and learn the truth.
* Lim Kit Siang, DAP National Chairman