First step to end the “First World Infrastructure, Third World Mentality” Malaysian malaise is to end the Third World Press Freedom in Malaysia

Media Statement
by Lim Kit Siang

(Penang,  Monday): Deputy Information Minister, Datuk Zainuddin Maidin has exhibited more of his abysmal ignorance and boundless  conceit when he questioned the findings of a survey by a Paris-based Press organization, which indexed Malaysia low in press freedom. (New Straits Times) 

Accusing Reporters sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders) as an organization with a hidden agenda, Zainuddin said he questioned the credibility of Reporteurs sans Frontieres, and asked why they excluded Singapore from the survey. 

The  Press Freedom Index of  Reporters Without Borders, which was published in the programme book of the World Press Freedom Day 2003 organised by the Asian Institute for Development Communication in association with the National Press Club and Malaysian Press Institute,  placed Malaysia in 110th position below Indonesia (57), Thailand (65) and the Philippines (89), but just a rung better than Brunei (111) out of 139 countries.  Singapore was not listed "due to lack of information."

Zainuddin also expressed regret that the World Press Freedom Day observed over the weekend  did not focus on the journalism ethics breached by the United States.

He said: "The World Press Freedom celebrations did not at all focus on the journalism ethics breached by the country which initiated the Press Freedom Day. 

"Why are these things not stated in the survey report by Reporteurs sans Frontieres? Did they do a fair survey or merely released a report to tarnish the image of countries which refused to follow their instructions". 

Zainuddin said Malaysian journalists must be aware of the manipulations by organisations under the guise of the United Nations, alleging that Reporters Without Borders were among the  organisations which acted as the "invisible arm" for the foreign policies of the United States. 

If Zainuddin wants to make a fool of himself, this is his personal right and prerogative, but he should not make a fool of Malaysia in the international arena when he speaks at the Deputy Information Minister of the country. 

I hold no watching brief for  Reporters Without Borders, as I had never been in touch or contact with it, and it is for  the Paris-based organization dedicated to  the defence of press freedom and imprisoned journalists throughout the world to respond to Zainuddin’s serious allegations against it for having a “hidden agenda”, of being soft towards Singapore and the United States, and worse,  of acting as an “invisible arm” for the US foreign policies. 

Close followers of the international relations must however be astounded by Zainuddin’s attack on the credibility and integrity of the Paris-based organization, not only because of France’s leading role in opposing the US unilaterist-led war in Iraq for which Bush Administration officials are demanding that France be  punished and “pay a price”, but also because of the claimed intimacy between  Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad and the French President Jacques Chirac.  Will Zainuddin next be accusing Chirac of being a poodle or stooge of Bush? 

Zainuddin must not be allowed to mislead the Malaysian public and besmirch the nation’s international reputation and this is why his most palpable errors must be corrected. 

Firstly, Zainuddin’s ignorance was manifest when he asked why the Reporters Without Borders did not address the breach of journalism ethics by the United States in the Iraq war – and the simple answer is that its  first worldwide index on press freedom was released long before the Iraq war on March 20. 

The Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, which placed Malaysia 110th out of 139 countries surveyed,  was released last October. 

On 25th October last year, I had  called for a Ministerial statement followed by a parliamentary debate on the atrocious ranking of Malaysia among some 20 per cent of the nations in the world with the worst press freedom record, as it should be  taken as a serious affront and even disgrace to Malaysia – but at that time  Zainuddin and the government were  quite complacent and oblivious to such a derogatory ranking of Malaysia’s press freedom record. 

In fact, I had occasion in my media statement on 12th November 2003 to express regret that  Parliament  had adjourned its two-month  budget meeting without addressing  the atrocious press freedom ranking released by Reporters Without Borders. 

Secondly, Zainuddin returned to  his baseless  allegation that the World Press Freedom Day (WPFD)  was initiated by the United States, implying that it  is part of the American conspiracy to impose a new colonialism on the rest of the world. 

Zainuddin cannot be more wrong. The WPFD was the not the initiative of the United States, but of the  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.

Both in 1991 and in the first decade of WPFD, the  United States was not even  a member of the UNESCO as it had  quit UNESCO in 1984, accusing it of grave anti-American and anti-Western biases, as well as of 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.

Thirdly, although Zainuddin alleged without producing any evidence  that Reporters Without Borders has a hidden agenda and acted as the “invisible arm” for the United States foreign polices,  the Bush administration cannot be pleased with its Press Freedom Index, as the United States was ranked in the lowly position of No. 17, not only below Western countries like Finland, Iceland, Norway, Netherlands, Canada – the five  top ranking nations – but also below Costa Rica, which is positioned No. 15, although its per capita GNP is only about 11 per cent of the US per capita GNP. 

In fact, Costa Rica and Benin are two countries which have been cited by Reporters Without Borders survey as examples of how growth of a free press does not just depend on a country’s material prosperity.  Benin, with a per capita GNP of US $360, is ranked No.21, higher than rich and developed countries like Japan and Italy, and  some 90 rankings higher than Malaysia at No. 110 although we have a per capita GNP more than ten times that of Benin! 

Zainuddin’s exhibitionism of ignorance and conceit would not be totally without purpose, however, if it helps to focus national attention on one important fact which has been the subject of one of the greatest denial syndromes in the country. 

Prime Minister-in-waiting, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi had brilliantly diagnosed the “First World Infrastructure, Third World Mentality” Malaysian malaise and the Ugly Malaysian as the main obstacles standing in the way of Malaysia achieving the Vision 2020 objective of a fully developed nation. 

But the greatest denial syndrome in Malaysia about the state of press freedom in Malaysia has prevented the government and people from realizing that the first step to end the “First World Infrastructure, Third World Mentality” Malaysian malaise is to end the “Third World Press Freedom” syndrome  in Malaysia. 

This is vividly highlighted by the atrocious  110th ranking of Malaysia  out of 139 nations in the Reporters Without Borders worldwide index of press freedom -  placing Malaysia in terms of press freedom  behind at least 75 countries which are economically more backward, whether  in  Southeast Asia  like Cambodia,  Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia, but also  African and Middle Eastern   countries like  Turkey, Egypt, Yemen and  Haiti. 

But what must be the horror of horrors and scandal of scandals is that Malaysia has even worse press freedom rankings than more than a score of countries whose per capita GNP are less than 10 per cent of Malaysian per capita GNP like Laos, Eritrea,  Mozambique, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Malawi, Burkina Faso, Tajikistan, Chad,  Togo, Kyrgyzstan,  Ethiopia,  Rwanda, Mali,  Uganda, Niger, Tanzania, Madagascar, Ghana, etc. 

This can be verified from  the World Bank Report 2000/2001 report which categorized  Malaysia as a “Lower Middle Income Nation” in 1999, with per capita GNP of US $3,640, but all the countries listed which have better press freedom placings belong to  “Low Income” countries with per capita GNP less than one-tenth of Malaysian per capita GNP! 

Malaysia’s ranking in this year’s  press freedom index of Reporters Without Borders is likely to be even worse, with the crackdown on Malaysiakini in January, the conviction and RM5,000 fine of Harakah editor for sedition last week and the furore over The Economist special survey on Malaysia more than four weeks ago. 

Zainuddin should realize that sending journalists to Iraq and  allowing them the freedom to report and write what is happening there will not improve Malaysia’s press freedom record if there is no let-up on the arsenal of press censorship and control laws and pressures inside the country. Until reporters of the Joint Media Team Malaysia (JMTM) are  able to report freely not only  from Iraq but also when they come back to Malaysia – and  the freedom granted to all Malaysian journalists – Malaysia will continue to have Third World Press Freedom and suffer from “First World Infrastructure, Third World Mentality” malaise.


* Lim Kit Siang, DAP National Chairman