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Thursday, November 5, 1998 Published at 21:05 GMT

Anwar affair divides media

Police tried to block photographers' view of Mr Anwar

By South East Asia Correspondent Simon Ingram

The crowd outside the mosque was getting restless. Evening prayers had just ended and several hundred people had gathered on the street in front of the white-washed mosque compound. Dozens of foreign journalists waited expectantly.

Malaysia Crisis Section
The previous Saturday had witnessed pitched battles between club-wielding riot police and protesters in this same neighbourhood of Kuala Lumpur.

We wondered whether we were in for a reprise. But in the gathering gloom there was an air of uncertainty, and not without reason. The brutality of the riot police and the hundreds of arrests the previous week had had the designed deterrent effect, it seemed.

Then it started. Someone in the crowd yelled "Allahu Akbar" - God is Great - and the television cameramen swung into action, their lights throwing the scene into sharp relief.

The reaction was instantaneous. A rhythmic chant of "Reformasi" rose into the air, and posters showing the face of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim were suddenly brandished.

As the cameras rolled, an answering cry of "Mahathir resign" erupted. Young men in masks shook their fists excitedly and the crowd pushed forward into the busy road. Passing cars and buses honked their horns in sympathy.

We had a protest after all - even if I couldn't help wondering afterwards how far it had been our presence that inspired it.

Pivotal media role

From the outset, the extraordinary political drama gripping Malaysia has been one in which the media have played a pivotal role, courted and vilified in turn by each of the central players.

The government accuses foreign journalists of siding with Mr Anwar, of exaggerating his popularity and depicting him as a maligned victim of injustice. As his trial in the Kuala Lumpur High Court began this week, foreign journalists outnumbered their Malaysian counterparts on the crowded public benches.

As the prosecution began outlining its case, accusing him of corruptly trying to suppress evidence of his sexual misconduct, Mr Anwar nodded and smiled in our direction. The sarcastic comments he made out loud about the proceedings were for our benefit.

If Mr Anwar sees us as an ally, the local media is very definitely his enemy. From the day of his sacking in early September, Malaysia's tightly-controlled press and broadcast media have done everything possible to blacken Mr Anwar's reputation and reinforce presumption of his guilt.

Prosecution documents containing the most lurid tales of his alleged misdeeds have been given splash treatment. The huge anti-government protest rallies he staged were virtually ignored.

Mahathir attacks foreign press

This editorial line has not been accidental. It's been inspired from the top, by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad himself. He has wasted no opportunity to publicly denigrate the man he once groomed as his successor and who he now says is morally unfit to lead the country.

Not for the first time in his career, Dr Mahathir has castigated the foreign media, and broadcasters like CNN and the BBC in particular. Hardly a day passes without another sarcastic crack from the prime minister over the way Malaysia is reported abroad.

Western reporters tell lies, he says, in the hope that the country will slide into turmoil and its people suffer humiliation. It's an alarming claim but one repeated so often you have to assume he actually believes it.

Where Malaysia's prime minister goes, others tend to follow. The inspector general of police held a bizarre news conference a few weeks ago, during which he told one importunate British reporter to shut up, before threatening him with what would plainly have been an unpleasant private interview. Foreign television companies are prevented from transmitting unflattering news coverage by satellite, and have to ship their tapes out instead.

News agenda backfiring

Taking their cue, the Malaysian media have begun sniping at us as well, hinting at our partiality. A BBC film crew talking to Anwar sympathisers outside the High Court shared the comments with a friendly reporter from the New Straits Times. Yet when her report appeared in the newspaper, the comments had been amended to suggest that a man with fiercely anti-government views was some sort of racist.

This less-than-honest approach to news coverage is back-firing badly. So incensed have some people been by one Malay-language newspaper that they've organised a boycott of it. Many others are turning to the Internet, where pro-Anwar web-sites have achieved enormous popularity.

Middle class Malaysia is in revolt, not just because of sympathy for Mr Anwar, but because of a perception that the government is lying to them. A yawning credibility gap has replaced trusting acceptance of the official line, and the western media is getting caught in the crossfire.

Foreign journalists are becoming not so much bystanders to Malaysia's political turmoil as unwitting participants. I for one would feel much happier to remain on the sidelines.

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