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P. Rama Krishnan of the opposition Aliran reform movement says the opposition is denied media access
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Tuesday, 16 November, 1999, 16:01 GMT
Malaysia's much-maligned media
Harakah Harakah is one of the few opposition papers managing to make an impact

By South-East Asia Correspondent Simon Ingram

When angry protests spilled onto the streets of Kuala Lumpur in April this year, following the High Court conviction of former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, there was one notable target of the mob's anger.

Malaysia's Snap Election
A car belonging to the state-run television channel TV3 became caught up in a melee near the city centre. Its windows were smashed, and the crew inside suffered a nasty fright.

It was a minor incident perhaps, and one which some suspected had been somehow staged to smear the opposition.

Whatever the truth, it revealed the very real depth of anger felt by opponents of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed towards a local media which he has transformed into a powerful - some would say slavish - mouthpiece for his views and policies.

Like the television channels, the main newspapers - Malay and English-language alike - have been, with rare exceptions, a powerful propaganda weapon for the government since the onset of the Anwar crisis.

The accusations about Anwar's private life - including his alleged homosexual affairs - were publicised with excruciating and sordid detail long before they were aired in court.

By contrast, Anwar's denials, his counter-charges against Dr Mahathir, and the anti-government protests and views of his supporters received only scant or disparaging mention.

Media loyalty

In the run-up to the election, the state-managed media's loyalty towards the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition will be just as apparent.

badges A printing-press worker packs Mahathir campaign badges
That much was made plain back in July, when the information minister, Khalil Yaacob, announced that opposition parties would be denied access to state-run Radio Television Malaysia (RTM) in order to air their agenda.

In an interview with the BBC at the time, Mr Yaacob said RTM was a government channel and preference would therefore be given to the government. "We have many private channels," the minister said. "Its up to them (the opposition) to talk, to negotiate."

In response to the suggestion that the government's attitude was scarcely democratic, Mr Yaacob said : "We are a developing country, and we are a multi-racial society, so a lot of things are very sensitive."

Critics rejected such arguments. Some said the ban demonstrated the government's inability to distinguish between the property of the state and party property and, as such, amounted to an abuse of power.

In previous elections, the opposition was given at least token air-time on radio in which to present its electoral strategy. In this, the most keenly-contested election in years, even that chance is likely to be denied them.

Limits of press freedom

The constraints on media freedom do not end there. The Printing Presses and Publications Act, for example, requires newspaper owners to apply for annual licences in order to continue operating.

Mahathir Dr Mahathir is accused of tolerating only "servile" journalism
The Act allows the government to shut down newspapers, or withdraw publishers' licences indefinitely. Violators risk arrest. When journalists challenged the law earlier this year, the government's response was that press freedom had to have its limits, citing, like the information minister, Malaysia's racial and religious sensitivities.

That is not an argument which cuts much ice with the opposition who complain that their views are being - in effect - stifled.

The human rights organisation, Aliran, for instance, says that it has had had to use four different printing presses in the past seven months in order to produce its monthly bulletin, because of the reluctance of printers to handle the publication.

A statement by the opposition Keadilan party declared : "In Mahathir's 'democracy', there is really no place for the articulation of enlightened dissent. Like other authoritarian regimes, the Mahathir government is only comfortable with servile, subservient journalism."

Foreign reporters taken to task

Foreign journalists and media have fallen foul of the law too. In September, the Kuala Lumpur correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review, Murray Hiebert, was jailed for six weeks after he was convicted of "scandalising the judiciary" in a 1997 article that he wrote.

It was the first time Malaysia had jailed a journalist in 40 years. Other foreign reporters have been taken to task by the local media for their coverage of news in Malaysia to the point that there have been complaints of intimidation.

One opposition publication that nevertheless does manage to make an impact is the tabloid Harakah newspaper, produced by the Islamist Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS).

The paper's circulation soared amid the Anwar crisis, underlining deep public distrust of the coverage of the affair in the mainstream, pro-government media.

The government's response to Harakah's popularity was to remind its editor of a 1997 directive that the newspaper should be sold only to PAS members. But today, many non-members, and even non-Muslims continue to buy it.

Boom in websites

The other part of the media which remains firmly beyond government control is the Internet.

The "reformasi" movement has spawned almost a hundred websites, most of them linked to the name of Anwar Ibrahim.

Anwar online screengrab The reform movement has spawned dozens of websites
In the past fourteen months, Malaysians have logged on in their tens of thousands, desperate for news, information and views about a battle for the national leadership that many suspected was not being reported accurately or fairly in the country's regular media.

The material they've found on the Net is not always accurate or objective, but the result has been to deepen scepticism and hostility among middle-class, educated Malaysians towards the government, and towards Dr Mahathir in particular.

Earlier this month, the New Straits Times - a newspaper renowned for its loyalty to the government - hit back at what it called "Rumourville on the Net".

An article highlighted some of the myths propagated on the Reformasi websites, including one which allegedly reported the prime minister's death during a recent spell in hospital.

"This massive safe haven (the Internet) gave dubious legitimacy to the most malicious and unkind rumours", the Times wrote.

While some Malaysians might share that view, others would probably agree with a United Nations report in February 1999, which spoke of a "climate of fear that inhibits independent or investigative journalism and results in self-censorship of issues government authorities might consider sensitive."

In May, a New York-based organisation of journalists listed Malaysia - along with China, Cuba and others - among the world's ten worst countries in which to practice their profession.
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