Corrected on 29 Sept 2008 at 1pm
FINALLY, a contest for the top post of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) Malaysia is in the offing.
In one corner is Utusan Malaysia journalist Norila Daud, who has been the union president for 18 out of the 25 years that she has been a member of the union’s executive committee or exco. In the other is newcomer Mohd Helmi Foad, also an Utusan Malaysia journalist who has been an NUJ member for the past 10 years.
The NUJ is the national representative body of some 1,400 unionised journalists of eight English and vernacular newspapers.
NUJ logoThe contest for the union’s top post between Norila and Helmi will happen on 22 Sept 2008 at the biennial delegates conference, where delegates from the union’s branches will vote on who should lead the 46-year-old union.
It will be a closely watched fight by NUJ members, especially since the top post has not been contested over the past 18 years.
Helmi is a relative unknown in journalism and in the NUJ, but he could be the catalyst for much-needed revivalism within the union at a time when the press are facing constant pressures to toe the government line. The show-cause letter issued on 12 Sept 2008 to Sin Chew Daily, theSun and Suara Keadilan was just the latest in a string of threats to the Malaysian media.
Helmi says he is contesting the position because the NUJ leadership has not been challenged in a long time. “I want to show that the NUJ is still alive, and the practice of democracy is alive and well,” Helmi tells The Nut Graph, in what sounds very much like politician-speak.
Other than Norila, most of the NUJ’s exco members have held their positions for decades. Comfortable and complacent in their unchallenged positions, critics from within and without say the exco has lost the agility to respond quickly and effectively to its members’ needs and sentiments.
According to the NUJ’s constitution, the union is responsible for defending press freedom and negotiating the collective agreements — the legal contract that spells out the terms of employment for unionised staff — of its members.
Should Helmi become NUJ president after the biennial delegates conference, he says he will reinforce the union’s policies to defend press freedom and protect members’ welfare. He claims he has members’ support for his candidacy.
“We will continue our policies, especially about press freedom — especially with the recent cases of aggression against journalists and photographers,” he says.
“Some parties have said that the NUJ has not been constant in addressing these issues; and when they do make a statement, it’s usually not a very strong stand,” Helmi notes.
Such an observation, shared by many others, does not bode well for press freedom in Malaysia. If the organisation that represents most journalists in Malaysia is not flexing its muscle in advocating for greater media freedom, and not exerting pressure on the government to review press-restrictive laws, how can conditions improve for the Malaysian press and independent journalism?
Not flexing muscle
The NUJ is not vocal enough, says Edmund BonEstablished in 1962 by journalists as a response to Umno’s takeover of Utusan Melayu, the NUJ actually has a prolific track record in activism.
Its championing of press freedom continued into the 1980s when it protested against the repressive amendments made to the Official Secrets Act (OSA). According to the NUJ-Star blog, in 1986, the NUJ submitted some 36,000 signatures from citizens who opposed the amendments to then-prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Although the NUJ has the necessary capacity and moral fibre to speak up on various issues, human rights lawyer Edmund Bon says it rarely does so. “Their position on media freedom is quite progressive, but I don’t think we’ve seen them being vocal enough,” he says in a phone interview.
For example, the NUJ did not speak up when Penang Umno secretary and Penaga state assemblyperson Datuk Azhar Ibrahim was reported to have said Sin Chew Daily journalist (corrected) Tan Hoon Cheng should be shot. Tan was the reporter who first reported Bukit Bendera Umno division chief Datuk Ahmad Ismail’s hurtful remarks about Malaysian Chinese while campaigning for the Permatang Pauh by-election in August 2008.
The NUJ also did not issue a statement when Ahmad’s supporters verbally assaulted and threatened to harm a journalist with The Edge Financial Daily, as reported on 9 Sept 2008.
Only after Tan was detained for 18 hours under the Internal Security Act (ISA) did the NUJ speak up against the blatant infringement of rights and threats to journalists.
Still, Norila told The Star on 13 Sept 2008 that if Tan’s report were seditious, she should have been charged under the Sedition Act instead of being taken in under the ISA. This is despite the fact that the Sedition Act criminalises, and thus broadly limits, free speech.
(© Srdjan Srdjanov / Dreamstime)Norila’s support of the Sedition Act also goes against the NUJ’s Code of Ethics that clearly states that its members must defend the twin principles of “freedom in the honest collection and publication of news, and the right of fair comment and criticism.”
When The Nut Graph contacted Norila, she refused to comment on the NUJ’s role in defending press freedom because “it is tricky.” She then directed The Nut Graph to NUJ secretary-general Hong Boon How, from The Star.
Hong did not revert despite several phone conversations and SMSes. Finally, he said: “We looked at your questions and discussed them. We decided not to respond.”
Every two years, at the delegates’ conference, the exco proposes motions to fight for press freedom and to repeal the Printing Presses and Publications Act and the OSA.
These resolutions are passed without objections. However, past conference reports show that the resolutions were never implemented.
In fact, according to the 2002-2004 NUJ Biennial Delegates Conference report, some branch delegates were compelled to propose a resolution calling for the exco to implement all resolutions adopted in previous conferences.
Even when the NUJ issues a statement, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) Malaysia says the union’s leadership seems to miss the mark.
“On 18 Nov 2007, in responding to the attack on [Guang Ming Daily photographer] Koh [Choon Seng], and recently in Permatang Pauh, [Norila] laid the responsibility on organisers to ensure the safety of journalists, instead of asserting the need for protection of journalists by all parties,” the media advocacy group’s 3 Sept 2008 statement said.
NUJ general treasurer Martin Vengadesan says the union “does organise seminars and has issued statements” advocating press freedom. But its activism has tapered off since Ops Lalang in 1987, when more than 100 people were arrested and detained without trial under the ISA.
The union’s activism, Martin argues, has been further hampered by the frequent buyover of formerly independent media organisations such as The Star and Nanyang Siang Pau by parties linked either directly or indirectly to political parties in the Barisan Nasional government.
At the Benar Walk for Media Freedom (Pic courtesy of the Centre for Independent Journalism)When the civil society initiative Benar For a Free and Fair Media (Benar) staged the Walk For Media Freedom at Dataran Merdeka on 1 June 2008, groups such as the National Alliance of Bloggers, the CIJ and the Writer Alliance for Media Independence (Wami) were quick to show their unequivocal solidarity.
Only the NUJ refused to participate. “They had a lot of reservations, seeing that we didn’t have a police permit. The NUJ president (Norila) said: ‘We don’t want to put our members at risk’,” says CIJ executive director V Gayathry, who helped organised the walk that was poorly attended by journalists.
Benar coordinator Johann Foo recounts that “NUJ did not like the walk at all”, despite the fact that it eventually agreed to co-host the talk at the National Press Club after the walk, where former minister in the prime minister’s department Datuk Zaid Ibrahim addressed journalists.
Former NUJ-Star chairperson Wong Li Za says the NUJ exco may be complacent when it comes to press freedom because its members are more concerned with bread-and-butter issues such as their collective agreement with employers, and the kind of benefits they can gain from being part of the union.
But the NUJ leadership has also managed to disappoint its members in that respect.
Wong, who has been promoted to management and is no longer a union member, says the NUJ exco receives countless invitations to international conferences. The trips were divided exclusively among exco members, and it was only after members questioned the exco that these junkets were extended to members.
Police presence at the Benar Walk for Media Freedom She says the NUJ-Star branch had to also tell the exco that those who go on trips should account for how they benefit, and share their experiences with members. This has happened but rather unsatisfactorily, she adds.
New leaders needed
The NUJ’s inability to attract new members — coupled with the fact that more entry-level journalists are hired as executives and are therefore ineligible to join the union — leaves the union very little chance of reforming into the formidable body it once was, Martin says.
The weak union movement in Malaysia — a result of Mahathir’s administration — also means that a stronger journalist union does not have an environment to thrive in.
Already as a result of the NUJ’s languour, several organisations have cropped up to take the union’s place in media advocacy.
The CIJ, for example, was founded during the 1998 reformasi period when government control of the media was in ascendance. The CIJ is a non-profit organisation that advocates legislative changes and promotes freedom of speech and assembly.
Formed 11 days after MCA took over Nanyang Siang Pau in 2001, Wami is an organisation that protests against political and corporate interference in the media.
Wami chairperson Wong Chin Huat “It would have been great if the NUJ could have been at the forefront in protesting against the takeover [of Nanyang] and all other attacks on media freedom. That is, unfortunately, not the reality,” Wami chairperson Wong Chin Huat says.
The CIJ and Wami often collaborate on free press initiatives. They welcome the NUJ’s inclusion in their activities, but both parties say they have failed to foster a working relationship with the union.
While the media seems to be enjoying greater press freedom since the 2008 general election, Bon says these changes are largely driven by competition and pressure from blogs and internet publications.
“Maybe they need to look inward — why they themselves can’t achieve these progressive changes,” he says. Bon is the Bar Council’s Human Rights committee chairperson, and has on several occasions worked with the NUJ.
He observes that organisations need to set a time frame for leaders in any position. For example, he says, the Bar Council has capped it to two years. “There must be new people coming in so there is new vision to keep the organisation robust, diverse and progressive,” he says.
Challenge to the union’s leadership has mounted before. For example, during the 2002-2004 Biennial Delegates Conference, delegates from the NUJ-Star proposed to cap an exco member’s term, but to no avail.
In the past, there have also been contests for exco positions, including for the powerful secretary-general position. But these, too, were unsuccessful.
NUJ general treasurer Martin VengadesanMartin says most of these members who attempted to challenge the NUJ leadership have since been promoted to management or left to pursue their careers elsewhere.
But now there is a fresh contest.
The possibility of new leadership is exciting to a union that is seen by many to be ailing. Ironically, the struggle for the union’s top post is a mirror of the nation’s current political situation. But whether it will have the same repercussions is highly debatable.
Still, come 22 Sept, perhaps the largest organisation that represents the fourth pillar of democracy will choose new leadership over an old and tired one. Whether that transforms the union of journalists to one that is at the forefront of advocating for press freedom is left to be seen.