Monday 2 April 2012

Gag online media, face a backlash


It’s a great time to be Malaysian. By making the right noises, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak has become more popular. His popularity is so great that his lieutenants are apeing him. Our education is so good that it triumphs over that of the USA, Britain and Germany.

azlanNajib claims our democracy is the “best in the world”, despite its divisive religious and racial policies. The inspector-general of police (IGP) claims that only 1 percent of our policemen are corrupt. In January, our judiciary was declared free from government interference, because the opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim had been cleared of a sodomy charge.

We are not a poor nation. In 11 weeks, Najib and his sidekick, Muhyiddin Yassin, frittered away RM608.68 million (or a cool RM55.33 million per week) on nationwide visits. No one in Putrajaya batted an eyelid when the Washington-based financial watchdog Global Financial Integrity (GFI), reported that in 2008, the money flowing out of Malaysia had ballooned to RM208 billion (US$68.2 billion).

In Sarawak, Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud will spend billions on 12 mega-dams. The indigenous people have no access to proper schools or medical facilities but Taib wants us to believe that these people are proud they vacated their lands and livelihood, for these dams.

The government’s list of achievements is endless: The economy is booming. Debt is under control. Property values are rising. Unemployment is low, at least where unskilled labour is concerned. Foreign investment from Lynas Corporation and the Brazilian Vale in Lumut, may be dodgy, but billions will pour into the pockets of certain individuals, with a few hundred highly specialised jobs (for which few locals would be qualified) as a token consideration.

najib and media journalistLast week, Najib boasted that he had given the media more freedom. If he had said this yesterday, we would have believed his April Fool joke. Well he didn’t and so why should we trust him?

“Since I become prime minister, Malaysia has moved up nine places in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, even as the likes of the United States and Great Britain have slid down.

“And we are now officially one of South-East Asia’s most media-friendly nations, ranked well ahead of Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore.”

Najib may be daft, but we are not.

Singapore may be a good place for someone with RM250 million to buy a few luxury apartments or set up a beef business, but the island state has no real press freedom. Singapore is repressive when it comes to dissent. The British author Alan Shadrake who wrote about Singapore’s legal system and death penalty, was jailed. Najib’s comparison between Malaysia and Singapore is no big deal.

In Thailand, reporters covering opposition protests have been attacked and there has been a rise in the nation’s lese majeste laws. In the Philippines, journalists are murdered or face legal threats.

Najib said, “It is also why I have relaxed decades-old media licensing requirements, why I have ensured that the online sphere remains completely free of regulations, and why you can log on the likes of Malaysiakini or Malaysian Insider and find regular and strident criticism of the government.”

Try as he might to bathe in the limelight of the success of the online media, their success owes nothing to him.

Excelling in being specious

Najib excels in being specious. When the opposition exposed the irregularities of the Election Commission (EC), readers will recall how the PM quickly stressed that GE-12 was clean otherwise “the opposition would not have ‘won’ five states”. He knew he had to distract the rakyat before they could question the legitimacy of his government.

True. The opposition and the rakyat had been caught unawares and did not expect to win in 2008. Umno and the EC probably ‘miscalculated’ the various cheating techniques. The euphoric and daft opposition forgot to question whether they should have won more than just five states.

azlanIf Najib is sincere in promoting press freedom, why did he announce a few days later, that online media had to be regulated by the mainstream editors? Somehow we are reminded of the time when the Internal Security Act was purportedly repealed only to be replaced by two equally repressive laws. Is this what the new Code of Ethics will be like?

He said, “The government cannot be viewed as practising double standards in its rules towards the printed and digital media.”

The PM is aware that GE-13 is approaching and that one of the demands of Bersih 2.0 is for free and fair access to the media. So he tells us what we would like to hear.

If Najib really thinks Malaysia has press freedom then he is out of touch with reality, a fool or a liar.

He admitted, “But there are always two sides to every story, and things are rarely as simple as they seem”.

The PM knows that rural areas have no access to the internet. In the cities, the older generation frequently source their news from printed papers.

I have problems having stories published in the printed media. These detail the horrors experienced by readers not just in my own home state, but elsewhere.

Mainstream journalists only report what they are told to report. If they don’t, they are sacked. Investigative journalism is as good as dead in Malaysia. No company or person would dare print the truth, if it showed the government in a bad light.

Reporting in Malaysia is like Muhyiddin’s “Malaysian education” system. You only do as you’re told. No creativity allowed. No rocking the boat.

Stories of Malaysian journalists being threatened, abused and their e-mails being hacked, exist. It is worse for the editors. They are treated like errant schoolboys and made to appear in front of minor civil servants. They are threatened with their printing permit being withdrawn or told that what they published has jeopardised national security. Should an editor bow to these demands, or risk the publication being shut down and the employees being made redundant?

Najib knows that mainstream media have flagging sales. If he were to consider regulating the online media too heavily, he should be mindful of Tahrir Square, where the Internet and social networking sites were the driving force in the country’s socio-political arena.

According to the Internet World Stats (IWS) there are 62 percent Internet users (out of the whole population) in Malaysia and 42 percent Facebook subscribers. In Egypt the figures are 26 percent and 15 percent respectively.

Censor online media and Najib can expect a backlash. If Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales can bring America to its knees over its anti-piracy laws, the Malaysian rakyat can reward Najib similarly.

MARIAM MOKHTAR is a non-conformist traditionalist from Perak, a bucket chemist and an armchair eco-warrior. In ‘real-speak', this translates into that she comes from Ipoh, values change but respects culture, is a petroleum chemist and also an environmental pollution-control scientist.

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