The Malaysian government’s threat to suspend a leading newspaper unless it explains a controversial front page that juxtaposed a headline about a terrorist leader with a picture of Muslims praying is the latest sign Prime Minister Najib Razak is unafraid of taking on the media, observers say.
The interior ministry issued a “show cause” order to The Star after the English daily’s front page on May 27 caused uproar on social media.
The top half of the page had featured the headline “Malaysian terrorist leader”, referring to the emergence of a Malaysian, Mahmud Ahmad, as a top regional Islamic State leader. Beneath it, separated by a thin line, was a picture of Muslims praying at the beginning of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month.
The newspaper apologised for its “error of judgment” a day later but that was not enough to forestall the interior ministry’s demand.
The government said the newspaper had seven days to “respond to the show cause letter on why action should not be taken…including having its printing permit suspended”.
It said the front page could inadvertently lead people to link Muslims with terrorism. The Star had said it published the picture as part of an annual tradition of featuring the first evening prayers of the fasting month on its front page.
After the government order, the newspaper suspended its chief editor Leanne Goh Lee Yen and executive editor Dorairaj Nadason.
Media observers said the interior ministry’s action was not surprising – even though it was aimed at what is considered a “friendly” news outlet. The Star is owned by the Malaysian Chinese Association, a key member of the ruling coalition led by Najib.
“In the past they have done it quite a number of times to many friendly papers when religious sensitivity is allegedly touched upon,” said Malaysian politics researcher Oh Ei Sun.
In a Facebook post, veteran Malaysian journalist Jahabar Sadiq said it was a “matter of perception and perhaps sensitivity” on whether the newspaper had blundered. “Was it clear that the headline and article had nothing to do with the photograph on the front page? YES if you read newspapers regularly and don’t think Muslims are generally terrorists,” Sadiq said. “NO if you don’t read newspapers and rely on a snapshot.”
NOT THE FIRST TIME
This is not the first time the Najib administration has used a heavy approach with the media. In 2015, the government suspended The Edge and The Edge Financial Daily for three months over what it claimed was “prejudicial” reporting on the long-running financial scandal at the 1MDB state investment arm. The fund remains at the centre of multiple money laundering investigations around the world, including a civil suit launched last year by the US Justice Department involving a “Malaysian Official 1”, widely believed to be Najib.
Both the premier and 1MDB deny any wrongdoing. The premier also threatened to take legal action against the Wall Street Journal but did not follow through, citing the US daily’s protection under the First Amendment. And in February last year, the media regulator blocked access to the now-defunct Malaysian Insidernews portal – helmed at the time by Sadiq – for its coverage of the scandal. Sadiq this year launched a new website called Malaysian Insight . The Britain-basedSarawak Report website remains inaccessible in Malaysia after it was blocked in 2015, also for its coverage of the scandal.
However, observers said the latest episode was different because of its religious dimension. Malaysian journalist Fathi Aris Omar said it was “normal” for authorities to get involved in such cases.
The Star had drawn flak previously for its coverage of terrorism, said Omar, who used to work for it as an editor. In 2011, The Star incurred the wrath of authorities by running an advertisement for a “pork fest” in a supplement for Ramadan. It was let off with a warning.
Zin Mahmud, a veteran journalist and former editor of the Sunday edition of the Malay language Utusan Malaysia – one of the country’s highest circulating broadsheets – said navigating political controls was part of the job description for Malaysian journalists.
Mahmud cited three key hurdles to journalism in the country: overt political control by UMNO, the Malay-based party that leads the ruling coalition; laws such as the Sedition Act; as well as commercial pressures. Major newspapers and broadcasters have close links with the government. Utusan Malaysia is majority-owned by UMNO, while Media Prima, the holding company for the country’s biggest TV channels and The New Straits Times newspaper, is controlled by government-linked entities including the state pension fund.
Malaysian journalists said they hoped the government would not suspend The Star for its latest transgression. “Such a move would be yet another nail in the coffin of press freedom in Malaysia, which is already severely curtailed by archaic laws and hostile treatment by many who hold positions of power,” the Institute of Journalists Malaysia said.
The newspaper’s indefinite suspension of its top two editors “shows the paper is willing to take responsibility for whatever transgressions it is seen to have committed, perceived or otherwise,” it said.