Journalists, Stand Up for Your Freedom!

By Kee Thuan Chye

The scourge is upon us. The Government is getting unreasonably authoritarian by suspending the publishing licence of the news weekly The Heat. We are seeing the beginnings of a return to Mahathirism, to the culture of fear that former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad imposed on us. It’s time to nip it in the bud before it gets more grim.

I call on the media and all journalists to do their part to stop the tyranny against media freedom. Stand up and take back your right to freedom of speech and expression. Push for the repeal of the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) which accords power to the Home Ministry to grant and revoke licences.

A friend of mine who works in the media suggests a sympathy strike by all journalists, with media owners in tacit support. Is that doable? Or is it too much to ask?

Well, perhaps getting the cooperation of media owners will be virtually impossible – especially those of the mainstream media since most of them are affiliated to the ruling coalition – but journalists can stage the strike on their own.

So often, mainstream media journalists complain to me about having to take bullshit from their bosses, about having to do things that grate against their journalistic beliefs. So often, they say they are fed up. Now is the time for them to say, “Enough is enough!”

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) should facilitate this fight for media liberation. Once and for all, it should do what people expect it to do – represent journalists, fight for their welfare. And by fighting for their welfare, I mean not just fighting for material benefits like better pay. Far more important than that is satisfaction at work – and, certainly, the pride of being a journalist.

Reclaim that pride, journalists. The pride that you lost in the last few decades because megalomaniacs in the ruling establishment ensured that you didn’t do your job as you should, because they ensured that sycophants were promoted to become editors-in-chief. Now that megalomania is returning, it is incumbent on you, as watchdogs of society, to regain your traditional role and help our country move forward, away from the shackles of a regressive regime.

Reclaim that pride of being able to tell the truth, report the news as it should be reported and serve your reading public rightly. Instead of spinning the truth to serve the sinister agenda of the ruling coalition.

Editors-in-chief, change your stance of being a servant of the Government. Get your cojones back. Start publishing reports that expose the truth about what the Government does instead of those that seek to protect it; give equal coverage to the Opposition; be critical of both; give voice to the people in the Op-Ed pages. As long as a report is not libellous or seditious, it does not contravene the law. So what is there to fear?

If every media publication tells it like it is, would the Home Ministry suspend them all? Well, test it and see. Let the ministry suspend all and see what happens.

The Heat was doing its journalistic duty of telling it like it is. That’s why it has been stopped in its tracks. But what it did in no way broke the law. So how could the Home Ministry suspend it just like that?

The ministry gave it a show cause letter to which it must respond within two weeks. But only nine days after issuing the letter on December 10, the ministry ordered suspension on December 19. How come? Why didn’t the ministry have the courtesy to wait? Where is the fairness in that?

Most important of all, what law has The Heat broken to deserve such punishment? We don’t know. The ministry has given no reason for the suspension. Sure, it is not bound to do so – because the PPPA does not say it needs to. But this makes the PPPA an ass. It makes the PPPA unfair to the media.

Malaysiakini and theSun have speculated that the suspension could be motivated by The Heat’s article in its November 23-29 issue about Najib Razak and his wife Rosmah Mansor’s spending of public funds. If this is so, the Home Ministry has erred. This is not a valid reason for it to suspend the weekly. There is nothing in the article that breaks the law. In fact, in publishing it, The Heat was providing a public service in informing its readers about what the prime minister has been doing with our money.

If Najib and Rosmah are displeased with The Heat for exposing their extravagance, they should sue the weekly. No government agency should intervene in the matter instead and summarily inflict punishment, whether or not the couple requested it.

My lawyer friends think The Heat should contest the ministry’s action in court. I totally agree.

One says it should file for a judicial review. “It’s time to relitigate the constitutionality of the law,” he says.

First, the PPPA impinges on our right to freedom of speech and expression as guaranteed in Article 10 of the Federal Constitution. Second, it gives too much power to the Home Ministry. Third, it does not make it mandatory for a reason to be given for the suspension or revocation of a publishing licence, and this is unfair.

The other lawyer feels The Heat should go to court precisely to force the ministry to give its reason or reasons for the suspension. If nothing else, this would show up the different treatment that the ministry accords the newspaper Utusan Malaysia, which, as we know, has got away with publishing content that bordered on sedition.

Litigation will, however, take time. Meanwhile, the media as a whole must seize the moment and fight for its freedom.

If it doesn’t do that, the ministry will read its inaction as fear and continue to bully it into submission each time the Government wants to control what readers can read. It will happen again and again, as it has over the years.

The ministry will apply the disgusting tactic of suspending the media organisation’s licence indefinitely, thereby keeping it on tenterhooks, unsure of when its licence will be restored. It may even threaten to revoke the licence. All for the purpose of teaching the media organisation a lesson. We should not tolerate this any more – unless we want to remain a backwater democracy.

Journalists should come together and with one voice shout, like the character portrayed by Peter Finch in the movie Network, “We’re as mad as hell, and we’re not going to take this any more!”

That’s the way to stand up to bullies. Once and for all.

* Kee Thuan Chye is the author of the book The Elections Bullshit, available in bookstores.

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