By Fathi Aris Omar
After the sacking of deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim in
September 1998, I had been a regular contributor to a
local monthly magazine, Tamadun' (or Civilization).
Every week, for three months, people street-protested
at various parts of Kuala Lumpur. Since I did not have
any identification card, showing that I was a
journalist, I was chased after just like any other
In October that year, a close friend of mine was
detained without trial under notorious draconian
Internal Security Act for promoting reformasi (or
pro-reform movement). During interrogation, the police
asked him about me because his interview published in
that magazine was written by me. Other than me, there
were two other prominent senior political writers,
Ahmad Lutfi Othman and Sayuti Omar, who were also
detained and interrogated (though for a few hours) --
and books confiscated - for publishing their books.
The books, as expected, supported pro-reform movement
and Mr Anwar, and criticised Prime Minister's
During the height of uncertainty and government
assault to independent writers and publications that I
came up with the idea of forming a group of
independent journalists, writers, publishers, layout
artists, cartoonists and distributors. But
unfortunately, that idea was not well received - till
today I don't know why.
Later, a few journalist friends and I published a
bi-monthly magazine Detik (or Moment) and the slogan
was the people's voice for reform' We were under close
scrutiny of authority, especially from Special Branch
(SB) or secret police, also popularly known locally as
Bukit Aman (Federal police headquarters).
But again, the only pro-reform popular cartoonist,
Zunar, was arrested in September last year for
participating in reformasi protest vis-a-vis arsenic
poisoning of Mr Anwar. Then, some writers and
journalists succeeded in forming informal group called
Karyawan (Kumpulan Karyawan Rakyat or Group of
People's Idea-producers). They managed to form a loose
12 committee members but the groups slowly
disintegrated after last November general elections,
especially its chairman national laureate Shahnon
Ahmad, the author of famous satirical work Shit,' won
his parlimentary seats.
The Malaysian government attack towards independent
journalists and publishers have still been serious but
everybody does not seem to be interested to call for
consolidating journalist group anymore. Everybody
seems tired and fed-up.
During this period of time, last December to April,
that the government severely curtailed press freedom
in Malaysia. All the "remaining freedom" has been
taken away by Mahathir's paranoid and xenophobic
My former magazine, Detik, was banned 21 March this
year after being suspended since 1 December. A popular
opposition newspaper, Harakah's, (or Movement) permit
was not renewed until the newspaper agrees to
published twice a month (from 8 times monthly) and
another purely-commercially set-up political weekly,
Eksklusif, (Exclusive) was suspended mid-April.
These three major independent publications, except
Harakah which was always considered party organ, have
gained popularity in such a short period of time that
no previous experiences could match!**
So, we journalists once again feel the vulnerability
of not having any formal group to the hands of
suppressive authority. Slowly the idea comes to form
any kind of group. One of them is known as
Jawatankuasa Monitor Media (Media Monitoring
Committee) and another is known Jawatankuasa Bertindak
Membantah Pencabulan ke atas Media (Action Committee
to Protest against Violations of Press Freedom).
The former is headed by prominent figures such as
Rustam A Sani, Raja Petra Kamaruddin and Zunar, while
the latter led by Ahmad Lutfi Othman, his brother poet
Dinsman and me. All of us have significant readership,
thanks to reformasi movement.
So I went to Jakarta, participating in a conference
organised by Seapa and Unesco in conjunction with
World Press Freedom Day. Deep in my heart, our
problems at home far from any solution' - Mahathir's
government are closely watching us.
Less than a week after Press Freedom Celebration, two
independent publishing offices and a printing company
were raided by Home Ministry officials. For three
consecutive days, these officials enjoyed free reign
to instruct any kind of authoritative remarks and
justifications - put simply they ordered us to shut
down operations with immediate effect.
The two publications do not have any specific names
because they do not periodically published it - or so
the argument. The publishers consider the print
magazines and tabloids as "books"since they need no
permit, unlike periodical publications such as
newsletters, newspapers, magazines or journals.
That marks the end of any independent print
publications. And again, as usual, the need to
consolidate the handful of pro-reform independent
writers, journalists, cartoonists, contributors and
publishers arise for the unnecessary times.
Currently, only Harakah, its website Harakahdaily
and my news site,
publish -- one print version and two onlines. But my
site seems to face hostile' government conditions.
As long as Malaysian independent journalists do not
seek solid engagement in their struggle to uphold
press freedom, we will never see any good chance of
seeing any light of any kind of freedom. The
authocratic government will never give "free freedom,"
every citizen has to pay for it. Some of them social
and political activists -- that's why I do not
understand why it is so difficult to form a "lively
group of independent journalists".
What even more hurtful is that opposition parties, or
popularly known as Barisan Alternatif (Alternative
Front), seldom raises this issue even at the height of
violations. But obviously they are the first to get
benefits of freer press in Malaysia.
I am currently living in a crisis-ridden society,
seemingly full of funny-joker politicians, people's
heros and blind political followers. My society is
highly political and divide. Are they all clowns,
happy to submit to whims and fancies of
"master-puppeteer" ie, Mahathir? I wonder....
Malaysia's NUJ or National Union of Journalists,
comprising of mainstream journalists, is too busy
seeking betterment of the salary scale, annual bonus,
increment and fringe benefits for its members. NUJ
does not have any guts to even comment on issues of
banning and suspension of the said independent
publications, let alone fighting their fellow
journalists. Most of their exco members are senior
journalists from mainstream media, which are tightly
controlled by crony companies.
The whole issue saddens me personally, but of course
everyone has to shoulder this responsibility. It is a
gloomy picture but it is true.
Note: Before Asian economic recession in July 1997,
independent press had no weightage to Malaysian
readership. Generally, we only managed to print and
sell about 5,000 to 10,000 copies. There were a few of
them, e.g. Dunia Islam' (World of Islam), Media Islam
(Islamic Media), Perspektif (or Perspective -
published for only a year by an NGO), Ummah, Mingguan
Rakyat and including Tamadun (10,000-15,000) and
Harakah (40,000 to 60,000). After reformasi, September
1998, Tamadun could sell around 50,000 copies and
Harakah nearly 400,000 copies. The "late-comers" such
as Detik could sell up to 70,000 copies and Eksklusif
more 120,000 copies. That explains why violations of
freedom of independent press previously did not arise
as intensively as today
Fathi Aris Omar, currently News Editor of the online
newspaper malaysiakini.com and actively writes since
more 10 years in pro-government and pro-opposition
newspapers. His E-mail is: firstname.lastname@example.org