Last Saturday, The Star published on its front page a huge picture of Muslims praying to send a message that Ramadan month had started. Coincidentally, the front-page lead story chosen on that day was a Malaysian Muslim leader of the IS extremist group. The two have nothing to do with each other but the newspaper was subsequently accused of implying that Muslims are terrorists, kicking off a controversy.
As it is now, The Star top editors had been invited for “tea” by the Home Ministry. Swift actions have been taken by the newspaper by publishing a front-page apology the next day and also suspending its editor-in-chief and an executive editor. Notwithstanding, the newspaper was ordered to give an explanation in seven days by the Home Ministry.
Actually, by just looking at the layout, the controversial front-page headline and the main picture under it are two different things and they have no connection with each other. As a front-page lead, the heading “Malaysian terrorist leader” has to be big. However, readers should not regard the picture with any “leading” meaning.
Put simply, whether the layout is laden with implication depends entirely on the subjective judgment of the viewer. Therefore, The Star’s trouble can be regarded as another demonstration of official interference of Malaysia’s press freedom.
In Malaysia, religious affair has always been regarded as a sensitive topic. Under the 1984 Printing Presses and Publishing Act, media in Malaysia have been very cautious in treating religious news. However, such an approach also has the ultimate result in taming the media and making it subservient to the will of the authorities. Any carelessness in crossing the bottom-line would put the media under the pressure of its publishing licence being suspended.
The Malaysian government can claim that Malaysia has space for press freedom. However, it cannot be denied that such space is shrinking and the media is unable to play its role as the fourth estate when it is operating under the numerous draconian laws such as the 1984 Printing Presses and Publishing Act, the Sedition Act, the MCMC Act and Official Secrets Act.
Of course, media operation cannot be perfect. But media supervision should not be left mainly to a government agency. Any political interference would steer the media towards the ruling clique and affect its neutrality. As such, the urgent task is to set up of an independent media supervisory committee so that the media could supervise each other.
Proposal to set up such a body was raised in 1973 during the tenure of the second Prime Minister Tun Razak. In 2012, Prime Minister Najib agreed to the establishment of a Malaysian Newspaper Council. Nevertheless, such organization failed to take shape and one of the reasons is that the ruling group is reluctant to accept the self-regulatory role of the media.
However, we are in a free information era where people do not depend entirely on the mainstream print media or electronic media for information. People depend more on internet for information. Government actions against the mainstream media will only deepen people’s distrust of the mainstream media, which would result in a major blow to the traditional newspaper.
Any media supervisory organization must be separated from government control, otherwise, such organization would only be a paper tiger.
The Star case will not be the last. It is believed that many more of such cases will crop up especially when the election is nearing with populist and religious views running wild. Malaysian media people must now stand up to defend press freedom. Press organizations and journalist associations have made their stand known. NUJ has voiced its stand. The Editors’ Association (Chinese Medium) Malaysia as a leader of the pack should not remain silent.