On the first day of Ramadan, The Star published on its front page a picture of Muslims performing the terawih prayers at the Putrajaya Mosque.
From the media’s point of view, it was to announce to the readers that the holy fasting month had begun.
The Star editors had intended to express its goodwill to Muslims in Malaysia through such a picture while also conveying the message of puasa to other communities in a bid to promote greater understanding among the different ethnic groups of this country.
Festive celebration pictures have also been published on the front pages of this daily on other festive occasions, and this has developed over the years and decades into the newspaper’s editorial style.
I am not trying to defend The Star, but its senior management has in a dialogue with the government explained the use of the picture as bridge for enhanced understanding in our multiracial society.
Personally I have very high regards for such a positive attitude on the part of a media company.
But, even an accident could happen to such a “bridge”!
Concurrently, the headline news of the day was the fierce battle between the Philippine military and the Islamist radicals in the southern city of Marawi, and the leader of this radical group was a Malaysian, former Universiti Malaya lecturer Mahmud Ahmad.
The Star’s cover headline for the day was: “Malaysian terrorist leader”.
To be honest, the headline had absolutely nothing to do with the picture of Muslims performing the terawih prayers.
Unfortunately some readers’ minds were a little too subjective, and when they put the news headline and the picture together, the front page seemed to hint that Malaysian Muslims were terrorists.
Consequently NGOs and political parties lashed out their protests, accusing The Star of hurting the feelings of Muslims.
The home ministry summoned The Star editors to explain why actions should not be taken against them.
As a member of the Malaysian press, all I could say is that it was merely an unfortunate coincidence and human negligence, not because someone had the intention of offending the Islamic faith.
As a mainstream newspaper, The Star is subjected to the Printing Presses and Publication Act and is being monitored by the government on a daily basis.
As if that is not enough, many of its readers are Muslims. Hurting the feelings of Muslims on intention is both illogical and contrary to the paper’s interests.
The Star has indeed done something wrong, its mistake being its oversight, unprofessionally putting the lead story and the picture on the same page that could potentially spark misunderstanding and misinterpretation.
This should serve as a lesson for the Malaysian press and the society at large. A multicultural society should never be taken for granted as would be depicted in classroom textbooks as perfect harmony and goodwill solidarity.
As a matter of fact, the relationship of the segregated yet overlapping structure of our multicultural society is highly complicated, with lurking skepticism, misunderstandings, conflicts and all forms of “land mines”.
We have to be doubly careful not to step on these land mines. At the same time, communication and understanding must be reinforced.
The Star front page incident and the recent comic on Nanyang Siang Pau have all been consequences of negligence and lax supervision. This is particularly pertinent in a religiously sensitive society like ours.
Meanwhile, the vociferous protests from religious and ethnic groups have stemmed from excessive subjectiveness and self-protection attitude without taking into consideration the objective conditions. Such reflex reactions require a much larger dose of communication and mutual understanding to help dissolve and cool down.
While handling this matter, perhaps the home ministry should also take into account the kind intention of The Star in publishing the picture although the day’s headline story was very real. When the two appeared together, it was mere coincidence and not a wicked intention of offending Muslims in the country.
The Star has offered the explanation and tendered an apology. The authorities’ action should be one that serves to warn the media of such insensitivity and not to mete out excessive punishments.