Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Suhakam fails in fine print
By: Steven Gan (source: malaysiakini.com)

What Suhakam has done so far can hardly be said to be achievements. At best, it can be called initiatives.� No, these are not the words of a Suhakam critic - and there are many. These words are from none other than Suhakam vice-chairperson Harun Hashim.

And indeed, he is right.

However, to evaluate Suhakam�s performance in protecting human rights - and press freedom in particular - the question we should ask is not so much what it has done, but what impact it has made.

The answer is, sadly, very little.

Suhakam�s three-year track record speaks for itself. Let�s begin with 2000, the year Suhakam was formed.

Jan 13: Harakah editor Zulkifli Sulong and printer Chia Lim Thye charged for sedition.

Feb 28: The frequency of Harakah was slashed from eight issues a month to two.

March 27: Bimonthly current affairs magazine Detik, published by independent editor Ahmad Lutfi Othman, banned.

April 15: Weekly tabloid Ekslusif, published by Karangkraf, banned.

Aug 31: Monthly youth magazine al-Wasilah, also published by Ahmad Lutfi, banned.

The situation in 2001 was no better.

February: The government blocked the distribution of international weeklies Asiaweek and Far Eastern Economic Review. In particular, Asiaweek was accused of publishing a photo of Mahathir which made him look �tired and stupid�.

Feb 5: Malaysiakini barred from government functions. The police, too, have slapped a ban on malaysiakini.

March 5: Mahathir accused malaysiakini of being unpatriotic. "These people act like traitors ... and people who love Malaysia cannot count on them," he said.

March 14: Selangor police chief filed a police report against malaysiakini for a �seditious� story on the Kampung Medan racially-motivated killings.

May 28: MCA bought Chinese-language dailies Nanyang Siang Pau and China Press.

December: The government ticked The Sun off for publishing an assassination plot against the country�s top two leaders.

Last year, the attack on the press continued.

January: The government again blocked distribution of Newsweek, Time, Economist and Far Eastern Economic Review.

March 12: Ahmad Lutfi threw in the towel and stopped all his unlicenced publications after a long battle against Home Ministry.

April 3: Malaysiakini barred from covering proceedings in the Parliament.

June 1: TV2 cancelled the screening of a Chinese-language documentary on the takeover of Nanyang Siang Pau and China Press.

Sept 29: New Chinese-language daily Oriental Daily appeared for only one day after it was told that it did not have a printing permit. It eventually obtained the green light from the government in December.

The first half of this year saw more erosion of press freedom.

Jan 20: Police raided malaysiakini, seizing 19 computers.

April: Government leaders called for the banning of the Economist.

May 2: Harakah editor Zulkifli Sulong fined RM5,000 for sedition on the eve of the World Press Freedom day.

So what has Suhakam done in response to such attacks?

Not much. Clearly, the human rights watchdog has been more of a detached bystander than a human rights protector. But to give credit where it is due, Suhakam did make a number of suggestions this year on press freedom.

Among them were for the automatic approval and renewal of publication licences, amendments to Printing Presses and Publications Act and Official Secrets Act, and the enactment of a freedom of information act as a guarantee to press freedom and access to information.

But as with others, such recommendations have been ignored by the government.

Who controls what?

The struggle for press freedom - with or without Suhakam support - must continue. The battle is tough for it involves two fronts, repressive laws and the government�s direct, and indirect, ownership of our media.

Much has been said about how restrictive laws have kept journalists on a short leash - PPPA, OSA, Sedition Act, Internal Security Act, contempt, libel and defamation, to name a few. Suffice to say that the number of laws that directly or indirectly impinge on press freedom runs to about 35.

What about media ownership in Malaysia? Here�s how it looks like.

English-language press: New Straits Times and Malay Mail are controlled by Realmild, whose owners are believed to be Umno proxies. The Star is owned by MCA�s investment arm, Huaren Holdings. The Sun and business weekly The Edge are under Nexnews - a company jointly owned by Vincent Tan, a business tycoon with close links to Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, and Tong Kooi Ong, a former supporter of ex-deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, who is now seeking to reinvent himself.

Malay-language press: Utusan Malaysia is directly owned by Umno since its controversial takeover in 1961, while Berita Harian is part of the New Straits Times Press group under Realmild.

Chinese-language press: Both Nanyang Siang Pau and China Press are owned by MCA, while Sin Chew Daily and Guangming Daily are owned Sarawak timber tycoon-turn-media magnate Tiong Hiew King, who has close links to MCA. Newly launched Oriental Daily is owned by another Sarawak timber tycoon, Lau Hui Kang.

Tamil-language press: Both Tamil Nesan and Malaysian Nanban are both owned by MIC leaders.

Broadcasting stations: TV1 and TV2 are state-owned, TV3 is under Realmild, NTV7 is owned by Agriculture Minister Effendi Norwawi, a politician from Sarawak, and satellite TV Astro is owned by Ananda Krishnan, another tycoon with close links to Mahathir. The bulk of the ownership of radio stations is split between state-owned RTM (four stations) and Ananda�s Astro (five stations), while MCA controls Rediffusion (two stations).

More recently, another Mahathir-linked tycoon, Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary, has attempted to buy a stake in Utusan and NSTP group which will give him control over two key Malay dailies as well as NST, Malay Mail, and TV3. It is not clear whether Syed Mokhtar would be allowed to do so for even the government is troubled by such blatant monopoly of the media.

Be that as it may, these are the men and women who control what we see, what we hear, and what we read.

But when all is said and done, Malaysians get the media they deserved. It is only when there is media diversity - especially in media ownership - can there be genuine press freedom. We are evidently very far from reaching that goal.

And Suhakam is not helping either. After all, after three years and millions of ringgit poured into the human rights watchdog, it can hardly claim to have made any achievements.

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The above is part of a speech made at the July 12 �Suhakam After Three Years� national consultation in Penang, organised by Era Consumer.

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