Call on Suhakam to release an annual report on the state of the Malaysian press on every World Press Freedom Day as an important strategy to remove Malaysia from the world’s black list of countries with the  worst press freedom record

2003 World Press Freedom Day celebration
by Lim Kit Siang

(Penang,  Saturday): Deputy Information Minister, Datuk  Zainuddin Maidin declared yesterday  that media freedom issues have become irrelevant after their Western proponents allegedly abandoned these values in the Iraq war coverage.  

Delivering a keynote address  at a National Union of Journalist forum, Zainuddin said World Press Freedom Day instead marks the end of media freedom at the hands of its strongest supporters, particularly the British and Americans.

He said: "I am a cynic of press freedom values. The death of press freedom (has been) at the hands of the people who promote it. CNN and BBC have violated press freedom values which they promote."

Malaysiakini, in its report yesterday of Zainuddin’s speech, said:

“The deputy minister opined that the experiences of neighbouring countries have shown that media freedom is impractical in reality.

“’In Indonesia, after Suharto, they said they will uphold principles of press freedom. But do you believe in this rhetoric? Do you believe that a country whose people can be bribed by a packet of food to demonstrate in the streets can (practise press freedom responsibly)?’  he questioned.

“Zainuddin, a proponent of Asian values concept, was equally scathing of Southeast Asian journalists who had called for governments in the region to abide by universal human rights values.

“’We (Malaysians) have to establish our own press freedom concepts and values. It has been proven that we have the ability to be stable, to suppress extremism through guided press freedom,’ he said.

“In addition, Zainuddin was resentful of journalists from other Southeast Asian countries who had spoken o­n media freedom and human rights issues in Malaysia.

“’The Indonesians and Filipinos don’t even have enough to fill their stomachs. Who are they to lecture us o­n press freedom? We are more qualified because we have full stomachs,’ he asserted.”

Zainuddin has made  the most ill-informed, illogical, conceited and insufferable speech by any Minister or Deputy Minister in the 46-year history of the nation.  It is also most sinister and  dangerous.

Let me explain why.

Firstly, he accused the Americans and the British as the strongest supporters of the World Press Freedom Day (WPFD)  on May 3 every year, implying that WPFD is part of the American conspiracy to impose a new colonialism on the rest of the world.

Zainuddin is uninformed and wrong.  The WPFD was the initiative of UNESCO after its  historic 1991  conference in Windhoek, Namibia on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press, resulting in the  Windhoek Declaration and the United Nations decision  in 1993 to celebrate World Press Freedom Day on its anniversary.

Zainuddin may not know that the United States was not a member of the UNESCO in the crucial first decade of the Windhoek Declaration, as the United States quit UNESCO in 1984, accusing it of grave anti-American and anti-Western biases, as well as waste and inefficiency, nepotism and corruption.  Britain followed  the United States out a year later.  The withdrawal of US and UK resulted in UNESCO losing 30 per cent of its budget.

The United States did not return to UNESCO until 17 years and nine months later on Sept. 22 last year when President  Bush thought he could bamboozle the world body to support his doctrine of pre-emptive strikes with Iraq as the first target.

Although the American civil society and non-government organizations continued to co-operate with UNESCO, these are organizations which have generally lined up against the US-led unilateral war against Iraq and are in the forefront criticizing and condemning  the major US networks of having wrapped themselves in the American flag and swapped impartiality for patriotism.

Secondly, Zainuddin exhibits an inferiority complex when he claimed that media freedom issues have become irrelevant on the ground that  their Western proponents like  CNN and BBC had  violated the press freedom values which they promoted.

This is because it is Implicit  in Zainuddin’s attitude that press freedom values are embraced  not because of their intrinsic universal  merit and quality, but because they are advocated by the Americans, and since they had been violated by the Americans, these values have become  irrelevant!

Zainuddin does not understand that the violation of press freedom values by the Americans does not make press freedom irrelevant, just as commission of sins  by sinners do not make the teachings of religions to be good and saintly irrelevant.

But there is another important distinction which Zainuddin has not been able to grasp – that the Americans have abused press freedoms given to them by their political system,  which should be rectified;  while the position  in Malaysia is completely different, for there is just no press freedom in the country with all the paraphernalia of repressive laws against the freedom of speech, expression, opinion and information.

Thirdly, Zainuddin was being unnecessarily  conceited,  arrogant and offensive, showing a most unfriendly ASEAN face, insinuating that the Indonesians are most corruptible (with a packet of food), lack noble values and high national purpose and together  the Filipinos are not qualified to talk about press freedom when they do not have “full stomachs”.

This may hold the clue for the extraordinary outburst by Zainuddin, who chafes from the knowledge  that Malaysia, though  economically advanced than Indonesia and the Philippines, lags at the bottom of the list and far behind the Philippines and Indonesia in any regional or international assessment of press freedom.

The New York-based Freedom House, in its latest study, Freedom of the Press 2003, surveyed 193 countries and grouped them into three categories: 78 countries rated Free, 47 rated Partly Free and 68 countries rated Not Free.  Malaysia is in the third category of “Not Free”, together with 38 countries occupying the lowest bracket of the survey.

Its assessment of the level of press freedom in each country is divided into three broad categories: the legal environment, political influences and economic pressures with a maximum score of 100, with the higher number being the least free.  Malaysia’s score is 71.

Zainuddin may protest that the Freedom House suffers from the traditional American bias.  We can then refer to the first world-wide index of press freedom by Reporters Without Borders, which is a Paris-based advocate of press freedom (which should be more acceptable as France opposes the US unilateral-led war against Iraq and is being “penalized” of such anti-American stand).

However, Malaysia is also at the bottom of the index released by Reporters Without Borders, being ranked 110th out of 139 nations surveyed  behind most Southeast and East Asian countries and in the company of African dictatorships.

This shows unusual international unanimity, whether American, French, Asian or South-East Asian in relegating Malaysia to the bottom of the heap in any international assessment of press freedom.

On the occasion of the World Press Freedom Day, Reporters Without Borders released a “rogue’s gallery” of 42 “predators” of press freedom, and the Malaysian Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad is in this unpleasant company.

Fourthly, Zainuddin commits the fallacy of equating press freedom with economic development.  In the Reporters Without Border survey, Benin is in the 21st place out of 139 nations despite being classified by the UN Development programme as one of the world 15 poorest countries.  Other African states, such as South Africa (26th), Mali (43rd), Namibia (31st) and Senegal (47th ) have also good press freedom record. In Southeast Asia, Indonesia is placed No. 57, Thailand No. 65, Cambodia No. 71  and Philippines No. 89 as compared to Malaysia 110th position, better than four  other countries in the region – Brunei (111th), Vietnam (131th), Laos (133rd)  and Burma (137th).

Zainuddin contends  that Malaysians, who have “full stomachs”,  are  more qualified to talk about press freedom than Filipinos and Indonesians. By his logic, he should concede that the Americans, French and the people in the West are more qualified than him to talk about press freedom as they have fuller “stomachs”!

Finally, I have said that Zainuddin’s speech on press freedom is most sinister and dangerous, particularly with his advocacy of the concept of “guided press freedom”, probably taking inspiration from Sukarno’s guided democracy!

Four years ago, close to a thousand Malaysian journalists had presented a memorandum to the Home Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi calling for a repeal of the Printing Presses and Publications Act and the liberalization of press censorship and control laws and regulations.

Abdullah had promised to give the memorandum of the Malaysian journalists serious consideration but there has been no public response from him.  In five months’ time, Abdullah will become the fifth Prime Minister of Malaysia – and one of the areas he will be watched attentively is whether he is prepared to take Malaysia out of the darkness of press censorship to the light of press freedom.

Is Zainuddin’s speech yesterday, rejecting the very idea of World Press Freedom Day  to celebrate the fundamentals of press freedom and to evaluate press freedom around the world and  advancing the concept of “guided press freedom”, a pre-emptive strike to hijack the media policy of the Abdullah premiership  after the retirement of Mahathir in October?

Abdullah should be very careful not to fall into such a trap, especially as recent developments like the extremist demands for a ban on The Economist for its special survey on Malaysia more than four weeks ago and the  conviction and RM5,000 fine yesterday of  Harakah editor Zulkifli Sulong on sedition have again blotted Malaysia’s press freedom record.

In this connection, Suhakam should  release an annual report on the state of the Malaysian press on every World Press Freedom Day as an important strategy to remove Malaysia from the world’s black list of countries with the  worst press freedom record, as press freedom is a fundamental cornerstone of human rights and a prerequisite for genuine democracy. 


* Lim Kit Siang, DAP National Chairman