Will Malaysia’s version of Al-Jazeera satellite television network be a Barisan Nasional propaganda instrument or a precursor to press liberalization in Malaysia?
by Lim Kit Siang
(Petaling Jaya, Tuesday): Last week, the Information Minister Tan Sri Khalil Yaakob revealed plans for Malaysia to have its own version of the Al-Jazeera satellite television network and said that a permanent media team will be set up to cover international issues.
He said the government had long wanted a news set-up similar to the Arabic network and that “it is time we had one, considering Malaysia’s status as a leading developing country”.
The question that must be asked is whether Malaysia’s version of Al-Jazeera satellite television network will be an instrument of Barisan Nasional propaganda and tool of its foreign policy, or whether it will be a precursor to press liberalization in Malaysia to lift the country out from the bottom 20 per cent of the nations in the world with the worst press freedom record.
Qatar, with a population of only 700,000, has become the new United States military hub in the Middle East following the US pull-out from its major air operations centre at Prince Sultan air base in Saudi Arabia to the high-tech Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.
It also hosts the controversial state-funded al-Jazeera emirate satellite network, which reached an estimated 35 million viewers built on a reputation of robust and independent journalism, accused by other Middle Eastern regimes as subversive of their rule, an anti-American bias and most recently, of having employees in Baghdad who were also working for Saddam Hussein’s regime before the fall of the Iraqi capital.
The question is whether Malaysia wants to emulate Qatar’s double standards, of a state-funded satellite television with press freedom to report on international events but which is completely denied to the domestic media coverage?
If Malaysia wants to have an international satellite television network of its own, it should set an example even to Qatar and Al-Jazeera to liberalise media coverage, not only on international events but also local developments!
How much will it cost Malaysia to set up its own Al-Jazeera satellite network?
It has been reported that the Qatari government has been spending around US$100 million each year since 1996 to sustain the station.
The government should seek prior approval of Parliament before committing hundreds of millions of ringgit a year to set up its own version of Al-Jazeera, as Malaysians should be entitled to have a say whether such a satellite station should rate high in the national order of priorities and the pre-conditions for its establishment.
Indefatigable blogger Jeff Ooi, has estimated that some RM8 million had been spent by the government for sending the Joint Media Team Malaysia (JMTM) to Baghdad, marred by “stealing, plagiarizing and spiking news” (http://usj.com.my/jeffblog.php3), and he has been seeking to get the JMTM chef de mission, New Straits Times Group Editor Ahmad A. Talib to account for his leadership of the mission and the RM8 million expenditure of taxpayers’ money.
As Information Minister, Khalil cannot keep his silence on this matter and he should clarify whether the government had spent the astronomical sum of RM8 million for sending the JMTM to Baghdad, whether its accounts are being audited by the Auditor-General and to make public a detailed breakdown of such a RM8 million expenditure.
* Lim Kit Siang, DAP National Chairman