Intolerance, violence and the media we need to defend

May 4, 2016

Intolerance, violence and the media we need to defend

by Howard Lee | What You Think | Malay Mail Online

In a casual living room setting filled with diplomats, writers and bloggers, the conversation eventually turned to a question about whether a blogger can be considered a journalist. The room was undecided, compounded especially by bloggers who felt that they could not represent journalism in any professional sense. But one participant, highly regarded in our journalistic circles, brought it all back to the ground by giving this basic definition of “journalist” – “someone who keeps and writes a journal”.

While in no way definitive of the journalistic profession we are familiar with today, it does highlight what every society needs: Someone who is able to share the stories of a community, using media that extends beyond the scope of a one-to-one conversation. Journalism, when view in this way, is not about whether you have a press card or if you get paid to write for a bona fide newspaper. Journalism is about applying the skills of the trade for an audience that needs to read the stories you want to tell, and doing so with the best ethics that you can put into every single word. Around the world, these journalists do not just fill large corporate newsrooms, but also work for small town newspapers, local radio and community newsletters.

And Singapore, too, has no lack of such journalism, despite our small size that makes the concept of community media sound implausible. For too long, the ridicule of Singapore’s dismal ranking in international press freedom indices had but one saving grace: That there are still individuals committed to speaking up for their community, even if the mainstream media would not or cannot. These individuals have found their place in the (relative) freedom of the Internet, where they can express their views in their blogs or social media platforms. Unfortunately, recent years have given rise to an increasing threat of violence to such individuals.

Of course, compared to our regional neighbours, where journalists risk life and limb, face death threats and have real guns pointed at their heads while working in politically regressive regimes or societies overrun with organised crime, our woes seem laughably insignificant. But the slew of legal action brought against individuals like Alex Au, Roy Ngerng and Leslie Chew for voicing their opinions, as well as every major social-political website currently on our shores, should give us pause to ask: Are we any less under threat?

Ours is a political system of intolerance towards dissenting voices, and such intolerance has recently gotten bolder in attitude and harsher in tone. Even a teenager who posted disparaging remarks about a political leader can win the wrath of the law. Not only that, but we are starting to see a growing intolerance among our population, who have no qualms about advocating violence towards contrarian voices.

The same voices who are at times doing nothing more than applying the skills of the journalistic trade for an audience that they believe needs to read the stories they want to tell. For sure, not every case can be seen as applying standards worthy of the journalistic profession, and clearly the polish, nuancing and simple EQ of some leave much to be desired. But such factors should not, however, be justification for the State and individuals bent on reading only the “right thing” to clamp down on these contrarian voices.

Freedom of expression allows us to debate freely, disagree or come to a consensus. It lets society solve its own problems, not through the use of a gun, online lynch mob, police report or a letter of demand; but through reason and respect. Singaporean society, unfortunately, has relied too heavily and far too long on the State apparatus to resolve our differences for us, and it is clear today that it has made us more retarded in our ability to think critically and engage meaningfully. In effect, we gave up our collective right to free expression, in exchange for a police state, where we are happy only if we are all made deputies. This is not free speech. It is not even a sufficient excuse for championing responsible speech.

It is violence committed upon others who have done nothing more than state an opinion different from yours. It is violence that has consequences more lasting than simply unfriending someone on Facebook. It is violence that has seeped into our national psyche as something that is justifiable, when in reality nothing justifies it. World Press Freedom Day this year will be remembered as the day in a year where Singapore as a nation exhibit to the world precisely how narrow our minds are towards those who seek free expression.

Quality journalism enables citizens to make informed decisions about their society’s development. It also works to expose injustice, corruption, and the abuse of power. For this, journalism must be able to thrive, in an enabling environment in which they can work independently and without undue interference and in conditions of safety.” — UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

We will stand in solidarity with those who have suffered violence for daring to speak out, for so have we suffered violence. The oppression we face is the same, even if the face of that oppression is different. Singapore needs to do better, and if the duty of making it better falls on those who keep and write a journal, then so be it.

Malaysia’s Press Freedom Crisis

March 23, 2016

Blocked Site’s Closure Underscores Malaysia’s Press Freedom Crisis

Blocked Site’s Closure Underscores Malaysia’s Press Freedom Crisis

Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) interviews Malaysian Insider editor

On March 14, The Malaysian Insider abruptly closed its editorial operations less than a month after the state media regulator, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, blocked local access to its news site.

The Edge Media Group, owner of The Malaysian Insidersaid in a statement that despite the site’s “courageous news reporting” it “did not receive enough commercial support to keep it going.” In a statement posted on The Malaysian Insider website, Editor-in-Chief Jahabar Sadiq confirmed the site was closed for commercial reasons.

The closure of the English language portal comes amid a government clampdown on independent media, particularly outlets that have critically covered the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) financial scandal that has engulfed Prime Minister Najib Razak’s administration. In recent months, CPJ has documented how authorities have censored, harassed and threatened individual journalists and media outlets in retaliation for their critical coverage.

In an email interview, Sadiq spoke about the government pressure his now-shuttered site experienced and the broad deterioration in press freedom in Malaysia.

CPJ: Last month, The Malaysian Insider’s website was blocked by the state’s media regulator. What article did authorities cite to justify the censorship and why did they consider it sensitive?

Sadiq: Until today there is no official explanation by way of a letter to The Malaysian Insider as to the reasons for the block. All we have is a minister saying we were blocked for an article that was confusing the people of Malaysia and a foreign ministry statement saying that the article was a threat to national peace and harmony.

The news related to an unidentified panel member in the local anti-graft authority saying they had prima facie evidence to back criminal charges against the Prime Minister over a huge sum of money found in his private bank accounts. The Attorney-General had earlier said there was insufficient evidence for a charge.[EDITOR’S NOTE: Najib has consistently denied any wrongdoing.]

CPJ: Before the commission’s censorship order, did The Malaysian Insider face any official harassment, warnings or threats over its critical news coverage, including of the 1MDB scandal?

Sadiq: We faced investigations for another case last year, but not related to this. However, the Internet regulator issued a general warning to all news portals last July over news coverage, specifically the 1MDB scandal, and the need to avoid using “unverified” news from other sites. There has always been unofficial harassment and threats by supporters and activists linked to the government.

CPJ: How did the government’s blockage of your news site impact your readership? Were readers able to work around the block or was your site, in effect, blacked out?

Sadiq: Our news site saw traffic decline up to 30 percent after the block. Most readers were able to work around the block and traffic remained ahead of other news portals, but eventually it affected our earnings more as advertisers pulled out. In a sense, that loss of revenue led to a permanent blackout.

CPJ: How did the censorship impact your news site’s financial situation? Do you think Najib’s government has a deliberate policy of using economic means to bring down independent online media?

Sadiq: The block led to the permanent blackout as revenue plunged. Only one advertiser insisted on putting advertisements despite the block and, ironically, it was a government agency. I have no proof that there is a deliberate policy to use economic means, but advertising agencies have told us that government-linked companies have been discouraged from advertising with us. In our time, only one bank, CIMB, which is owned by the state sovereign wealth fund Khazanah [Nasional Berhad,] has consistently advertised with us. The others did not.

CPJ: What role, if any, did government pressure play in the final decision to close The Malaysian Insider?

Sadiq: As far as I know, there is no government pressure in the decision to close down The Malaysian Insider. The shareholders had indicated from January that they wanted to sell the business and received several inquiries. But the continued block was a factor that affected the sale price of the news portal and perhaps pushed the decision [by the Edge Media Group] to shut it down rather than sell at a lower price.

CPJ: How has Malaysia’s independent online media’s reporting on the 1MDB scandal differed from the state-influenced mainstream media’s coverage?

Sadiq: Well, it is as clear as night and day between both mainly. Several mainstream print media have tried to be as comprehensive as the online media’s wall-to-wall coverage, but the threat of losing their license has curbed them. Most of them have been defending the government in the 1MDB scandal, while the online media has reported the issues and exposés reported by foreign media and whistleblower websites.

CPJ: The Malaysian Attorney-General has proposed intensifying penalties, including possible life in prison and judicial caning, for violations of the Official Secrets Act. What impact would such revisions, if implemented, have on journalists, whistleblowers and press freedom in general?

Sadiq: The proposals, if true, are chilling. No one would want to work as journalists or if they did, they would just censor themselves rather than run the risk of jail or caning for reporting something remotely seen as a secret. There are whistleblower laws but this seems to contradict the laws that seek to keep the government transparent and accountable. Such revisions, if passed, will just mean the death of professional journalism in Malaysia, and what a sad day that would be.

CPJ: What is your broad assessment of the press freedom situation in Malaysia? Is there still a future for independent journalism, or is the government effectively moving to outlaw its existence?

Sadiq: I have always maintained that there is press freedom in Malaysia and our existence was proof of it. But I guess I am wrong now–we don’t exist. There is a future, but it is under severe attack if people shy away from funding it or think that it is someone else’s problem to fund and run it. The government does not have to do much except ensure that there is enough sycophantic media to lavish praise at it while market forces and bureaucracy stops us from doing our job.

Today, news sites can only exist and do well if they don’t actually cover the real news of governance and scandals that plague Malaysia. The authorities would be happier if we covered entertainment, gossip and travel shows. Anything else threatens their well-being and, in turn, the media’s well-being.

Reprinted from the Committee to Protect Journalists website, CPJ Senior Southeast Asia Representative Shawn W. Crispin is based Bangkok in where he has worked as a journalist and editor for more than 15 years.  

Asia Sentinel’s John Berthelsen pays tribute to The Malaysian Insider

March 15,2016

Asia Sentinel’s John Berthelsen pays tribute to The Malaysian Insider

Influential Malaysian Website Closes Down

Malaysian Insider’s Talented and Courageous Editor Jahabar Sadiq

Malaysian Insider, one of Malaysia’s two most influential independent news websites, has shut down publication after eight years, the victim partly of financial difficulties and more because of unrelenting political pressure on the part of beleaguered Prime Minister Najib Razak, sources in Kuala Lumpur said.

The closure of the Insider leaves Malaysiakini, which has published since 1999, as the leading independent news site. It now carries English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil editions.

  “We worked as impartial journalists to inform Malaysians and other readers so that they could make informed decisions,” said Editor Jahabar Sadiq in a parting note on the website. “We worked to make all voices heard in this marketplace of ideas. But our work in The Malaysian Insider has now come to an end in a Malaysia that more than ever requires more clarity, transparency and information.”

The website was said to be losing RM300,000-400,000 (US$73.000-93,000) per month before it was hit hard when the government blocked it permanently on Feb. 25. It printed a story quoting a source from the panel that oversees the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission saying there is sufficient evidence to file charges over alleged financial misdeeds by Prime Minister Najib Razak. Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali refused to use the evidence to charge the Prime Minister with wrongdoing in January. The blockage put it into even more financial peril.

Growth under Edge

Malaysian Insider was taken over by The Edge Media Group in 2014 and expanded considerably.  However, it actually became a casualty of the enormous scandal over the state-funded 1Malaysia Development Bhd. that has engulfed Najib and expanded to several countries.

Tong Kooi Ong, the owner of the Edge Group, and Ho Kay Tat, the publisher, ran into deep trouble with the government last year when they printed a detailed series of articles based on emails stolen by Andre Xavier Justo, a Swiss national, from a mysterious Middle Eastern oil exploration company called PetroSaudi International that implicated Jho Low, the flamboyant financier who helped to set up the troubled 1Malaysia Development Bhd. fund, backed by the Malaysian government. The documents detailed a huge web of misuse of public money.

The government cracked down on The Edge, Malaysia’s most influential financial publication, suspending it and its sister news operations from publication for three months, later shortened to two months by the courts, and temporarily jailing Tong and Ho. The suspension is said to have played havoc with The Edge’s finances, cutting circulation and frightening away advertisers.

In a press release put out March 14, Ho Kay Tat said The Edge Media Group had incurred losses of RM10 million in the 20 months since it had acquired Malaysian Insider. Negotiations with three existing media groups to take over the publication fell through, he said. “Despite the fact that TMI is one of the top three news portals based on traffic in Malaysia because of its courageous news reporting, it did not receive enough commercial support to keep it going,” he said.

“A lot had to do with political pressure,” a political analyst in Kuala Lumpur said in a telephone conversation. “It may have been a commercial decision, but the major problem was political pressure on Tong and The Edge. Both Tong and Kay Tat  have been hailed in by the Police twice over the Insider’s reports on the MACC, so in the end they decided that because it was losing money, it was also putting too much pressure on the other businesses, so what’s the point? It was a business decision.”

In its eight years of operation, Malaysian Insider established a standard of professional journalism that is rare in Malaysia, especially in websites but in the mainstream media as well. All of the major media in the country are owned by component political parties of the ruling Barisan Nasional, or national coalition. Impartial news does not leak out of any of these black holes.

“The closure of Malaysian Insider will leave a huge vacuum in independent reporting in Malaysia, regrettably at a time the country desperately needs the media to play its role of protecting the national interest,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative.” It is no coincidence that the probing and respected news publication was forced to close down a month after the government media regulator blocked access to its site. Najib clearly hopes that by censoring and intimidating the media that the 1MDB scandal story will simply go away. But the more pressure he puts on the media, the more guilty he looks and the more damage he does to his already battered legacy.”

Najib is fast becoming a pariah in international diplomacy, not just because of the extent of the scandal but because of the astonishing lengths he has gone to in his attempts to contain it, including firing his deputy prime minister and the attorney general, eviscerating investigative panels looking into the matter and neutralizing other investigations.


Asia Sentinel’s John Berthelsen

Two suspicious deaths have occurred in connection with Najib’s affairs involving his personal bank accounts at Ambank in Kuala Lumpur. In one, Hussain Najadi, the founder of the bank, was gunned down in a parking lot in 2013. His son, Pascal Najadi, has charged that his father had complained loudly about Najib’s  financial activities and those of United Malays National Organization figures seeking to involve him in what Pascal said were suspect financial dealings.  In the second, Kevin Morais, a senior investigator looking into Najib’s accounts for the MACC was murdered, his body stuffed into an oil barrel and rolled into a river last September. (READ: Malaysia’s AG: Whistle-blowing Detrimental to Health)

Najib has systematically sought to close down all dissenting voices. Sarawak Report and Asia Sentinel, the two most active international websites, have been blocked.  At least 33 opponents of the regime have been charged with sedition including seven opposition members of parliament for making remarks critical of the government, the judiciary or Malaysia’s sultans. Last year the government pushed through amendments to the Sedition Act to increase penalties for violations and make it easier to use the law against online speech.  Dozens of people have been arrested for participating in peaceful protests.

The government also brought back indefinite detention without trial by passing the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), which allows a government-appointed board to impose detention without trial for up to two years, renewable indefinitely with no possibility of judicial review. In December, it passed a sweeping National Security Council law that allows the prime minister to declare security areas within which restraints on police power are suspended.

The Malaysian Insider depended on Ah Kong

March 15, 2016

The Malaysian Insider depended on Ah Kong, not Ah Jib Hor like Utusan Malaysia

COMMENT:  We bid a sad farewell to The Malaysian Insider (TMI).I’ll leave it to those better qualified to speak at length about their many achievements and contributions.

Suffice it to say here that they will remembered as one of the most widely read and impactful online news publications Malaysia has ever seen.

Perhaps this is a good time to take a step back, and reflect on just how vulnerable alternative media is in Malaysia, as well as the role that everyday, normal Malaysians, will have to play in order to keep alternative media alive.

The Internet revolutionised media in Malaysia. From a situation where any form of mass media was controlled by the same people who controlled the government, there suddenly arose a publishing platform that the powers-that-be completely failed to control.

With the advent of the Internet, and published, uncensored truths filling the country like a gush of fresh air, public discourse in Malaysia would never be the same again.

After a number of popular blogs laid the foundation, Malaysiakini blazed the path by being the first formal, professional online news organisation. Soon, many others followed, TMI among them.

All want, nobody wants to pay


Malaysiakini Founders–Still Going Strong with Generous Subscribers and Friends

I remember Malaysiakini CEO Premesh Chandran defining for me what a ‘social asset’ meant, a long time ago. He said, “A social asset is something everybody wants, but nobody wants to pay for.”

As news websites became more and more popular, and grew in size and stature, a persistent concern was funding.

Media conglomerates such as Media Prima or the The Star Media Group have very little to worry about, as they have the government backing them at every turn, and have what is practically a monopoly in their fields. That position of course severely compromised the independence and credibility of their publications.

When alternative media burst upon the scene to fill that gap, the public response was overwhelming.Of course, the only way to be and stay a truly independent media is to be truly financially independent.

Vulnerabilities of ad revenue models

For alternative media, achieving financial independence focuses on two areas: ads and subscriptions.Ad revenue is a particularly precarious landscape for online publications.

After all, selling ad space on publications deemed ‘unfriendly’ towards the government is already a challenging task, given how most businesses are unwilling to risk earning the ire of the powerful.

To make things worse, what happens when the sites on which you are selling ads run the risk of being shut down at any moment, the way TMI or Sarawak Report was?

In a blink of an eye, a blocked publication will have gone from providing a useful service to companies that bought advertising space, to providing absolutely zero service.

Even if websites are not shut down, in a country like ours, it isn’t difficult for someone in power to make a few phone calls and pressure companies clearly advertising on alternative media to pull out. There may even be hints of ‘consequences’ for failing to do so.

Ah Kong-owned vs owner-operated

With ad revenue so unpredictable, we are left with subscriptions. This is of course another major challenge, as many people balk at the idea of paying for news.

Why pay, when there is so much free news out there?Part of the answer lies in thinking about why or how all that free news got there.

It costs serious money to run a professional news organisation, and is often impossible without an ‘Ah Kong’ (slang for big backer with a ‘generous’ heart) or some other source of funds. (In terms of quality journalists alone, all the glory and thrill of writing for an independent publication can easily and understandably wither away in the face of mainstream newspapers that are willing to pay twice the salary.)

The trouble with relying on ‘Ah Kong’ of course is the risk that one might be shut down at any time, maybe for ‘commercial’ reasons, such as those the given by The Edge Media Group for shutting down TMI. Such publications only exist as long as ‘Ah Kong’ decides it is good for him.

It is no coincidence that perhaps the only owner-operated news publication in the country is also the only publication that charges a subscription fee for its online material. How else can they be expected to remain independent?

Up to us

No doubt there’s a lot independent publications can do to make it easier for us to support them; perhaps with a little more breathing space financially, they’ll be able to focus on making those improvements.

In the meantime, as Malaysia heads into some seriously dark times, we may have to let go of the mentality that someone else will pay for social assets like quality, independent journalism.

After all, if everyday Malaysians like us aren’t willing even a little to dig into our pockets to help keep truth and freedom alive, then we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves in a future filled with lies and tyranny.

To close, let us take heart from Jahabar Sadiq’s words: “We won’t go gently into the night, well because news never takes a break anyway. We will stay up, one way or another, to inform you and to let you speak to everyone who wants to listen to you.The biggest lesson I learnt is simply this, we are all The Malaysian Insider.”

NATHANIEL TAN had a very enjoyable stint working for Malaysiakini for the first half of 2015.

Respect Citizens’ Right to Participation in Governance Mr Apandi Ali told

February 7, 2016

Malaysia’s  Attorney-General Apandi Ali told: Respect Citizens’ Right to Participation in Governance

by Edgardo Legaspi

COMMENT | It was a rather unfortunate statement from Attorney-General Mohamed Apandi Ali (on harsher punishments for press who report on information leaks), one which may move Malaysia further backwards in its path toward transparency, accountability and democracy.

His reference to China is telling – as this is one of the most restrictive countries in the world – and it may indicate the direction he wants to the country to go. Malaysia has two states with Freedom of Information (FOI) laws (Selangor and Penang). This is a rarity in the region (only Indonesia and Thailand have FOI laws).

Now Apandi is threatening to strengthen the Official Secrets Act (OSA) by imposing harsher penalties on violators – and including medieval corporal punishment at that.

The A-G need not be too literal when looking at the constitution. It is true that the ‘right to know’ is not explicitly written in it, but it is generally accepted that freedom of information is an essential component to the practice of freedom of expression, as a guarantee to ensure public participation in governance.

This view is too literal. Is he also going to argue that Malaysia need not guarantee press freedom because it is not written in the constitution?He may well also argue that since Malaysia has not ratified the international covenant on civil and political rights, which is more explicit on FOI (“right to seek, receive… information”), that the country is not obliged to guarantee this right.

Secrecy means something to hide

As chief lawyer of the state, such a statement is irresponsible, as his duty is to promote the rule of law and public interest. It is not his job to defend politicians and government officials. On the contrary, his role is to protect the country and its people from abuse committed by such people.

The problem is that official secrecy is often used to hide corruption and state abuses.In these instances, whistleblowers must be protected as these disclosures are in the interest of the public and the country.

Who will be the Next Governor of Bank Negara and  who is the Replacement for MACC Top Post will confirm that 1mDB Cover-up is complete

Apandi’s statements are also a serious threat to freedom of the press.By threatening to prosecute journalists who disseminate information from whistleblowers, he is in effect telling the media to avoid covering such stories, or else face the risk of a criminal case.

The obligation of the media is to the public – to facilitate free speech and public participation by keeping citizens informed, especially about public affairs. To raise this threat of prosecution by forcing journalists to reveal their sources is a direct attack on the public trust that the media is trying to build.

Protection of journalistic sources is sacred in keeping this trust.It is precisely because whistleblowers face the threats and the risk of attacks from powerful people that protection of sources is at the core of journalistic ethics.

Related stories:

We’re truth seekers, not saboteurs, journalists tell AG

Rafizi: AG has no credibility to propose OSA amendments

Punishing the messenger, sparing the wrongdoer

EDGARDO LEGASPI is Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) Executive Director.