From the November 2000 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 47, No. 11)


War on Anwar

Debora Kuan, World Press Review assistant editor

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Muhamad has garnered international condemnation for the ongoing persecution of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. Despite the renewed outcry raised by the recent conviction of Anwar on sodomy charges in a case that has been widely viewed as a political vendetta, Mahathir shows no signs of loosening his tyrannical grip on Malaysia.

In recent months, Mahathir’s regime silenced two independent magazines, the news magazine Eksklusif and the youth-oriented Wasilah, for publishing articles sympathetic to Anwar.

On Sept. 8, the online newspaper Malaysiakini reported that Aliran, a Malay social reform organization, had condemned the crackdown for reinforcing “the public perception that the government is determined to clamp down on publications that are seen as critical, investigative, and independent.” Unlike the rest of Malaysian mainstream media, Malaysiakini is exempt from rigid licensing laws and self-censorship, since it attracts foreign investment in the local information technology industry, which the government welcomes.

According to an Aug. 9 report in the independent Nation of Bangkok, Anwar, who had been “Mahathir’s heir apparent to run the Muslim-majority country,” fell out of favor with Mahathir when he “failed to act according to the script” by advocating economic reforms. In August, after being tried and convicted for corruption and then tried for sex crimes, he was convicted of sodomy and sentenced to nine years in prison.

While Malaysia’s fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have upheld the mutual noninterference policy of ASEAN by remaining silent on the Anwar conviction, “outspoken criticism of the trial and ruling has come from governments in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, as well as non-government organizations such as the International Commission of Jurists, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch,” said an Aug. 12 editorial in the independent Bangkok Post.

Anwar himself has publicly expressed outrage at what he believes to be a political conspiracy masterminded by his onetime ally, and he plans to appeal the ruling. In a hand-written message to Malaysiakini posted Sept. 6, Anwar called Malaysia an “illiberal democracy.”

“[The trials are] a clear reflection of the government using repressive laws to stifle dissent,” Anwar said.

In neighboring Australia, the press voiced similar sentiments on the Malaysian judiciary’s manipulation by the government. On Aug. 29, an editorial in the centrist newsmagazine The Bulletin of Sydney commented, “The Anwar trials are only the latest example of Malaysia’s courts being reduced to play-things of politicians.”

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