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Mahathir And Malaysian Independent Journalists: A Personal Note

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 protesters.

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 political decision.

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 anti-dissenting views.

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, malaysiakini.com can 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: fathi@malayasiakini.com

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