Press Crackdown

Journalists across the political spectrum faced tough times in the new year: Police arrested opposition editors, and the editor in chief of the largest pro-government newspaper group stepped down under what regional media describe as political pressure.   Rome’s Inter Press Service news agency reported Jan. 13 that the editor and printer of Kuala Lumpur’s opposition Harakah, whose sale is legally restricted to members of the Islamic party Pas, had been arrested the previous day and charged with sedition, along with two other critics of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, Democratic Action Party deputy chairman Karpal Singh and National Justice Party vice president Marina Yusoff.

When the pro-government Star reported on reaction to the arrests of Singh and Yusoff, it did not mention the journalists’ arrests. Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was quoted as saying the arrests were not “political revenge.”

Harakah quoted critics of Mahathir, including jailed former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, whose comments on the regime included the following analysis on Dec. 28: “In Malaysia, we do have—though only in theory—clear separation of powers between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Yet for the greater part of the past 17 years, the organs of government have been mere puppets, with Mahathir pulling all the strings.”

The independent Straits Times of Singapore covered the changing of the guard at Kuala Lumpur’s largest newspaper group, owned by a corporation with strong links to UMNO, Malaysia’s ruling party. On Dec. 19, it reported that “a series of articles in recent weeks were said to have angered the senior leadership in UMNO,” leading Kuala Lumpur’s conservative New Straits Times Press Group’s editor in chief Kadir Jasin to take a six-month leave of absence from his job.

Kadir declined to comment on his decision, but the Daily Express, the conservative English-language daily of Kota Kinbalu, said staff at the newspaper were largely uninformed about the change at the top. “We are still uncertain as to what is transpiring,” an unnamed New Straits Times staff member said on Jan. 21. “It’s like a deck of cards always being shuffled.”

The bilingual Bahasa Malay-English Malaysiakini, a fledgling independent on-line newspaper, went further on Jan. 21, quoting former opposition leader Lim Kit Siang, who said: “Malaysian journalists should come forward to demand the restoration of press freedom in Malaysia and the end of all forms of press censorship, victimization, and discrimination.”