ON 6 April 2009, three days after he was made prime minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak spoke about a new way forward in policy, politics and the media.
To many in the media, his rhetoric about a “vibrant, free and informed media” was welcome, especially in an environment where government control of the traditional media is established through legislation and ownership.
Truth is, however, seasoned media practitioners are sceptical that these words really mean anything beyond a public relations spin. Indeed, one doesn’t even have to be all that experienced a journalist to be cynical.
Since assuming office on 3 April 2009, Najib’s administration has shown that creating an environment for a media that “allows people to hold public officials accountable” and that is not fearful of doing so, is perhaps not topmost on his mind.
Barring Merdeka Review
On 9 April 2009, Chinese-language online news site Merdeka Review was barred from entering the prime minister’s office in Putrajaya to cover the announcement of the new cabinet line-up.
No reasons were given. The officer who was responsible for relaying the instruction “from the prime minister’s office” was himself clueless. He was just a “coolie”, he said when The Nut Graph called him for an explanation.
When pressed for his full name and position in Najib’s office, he ended the call abruptly. It sounded very much like he feared reprisals from speaking to the media about an instruction from higher-ups that he was merely carrying out.
What is interesting to note is that according to Merdeka Review‘s editor-in-chief, the online news site has never been prevented from covering a government event in Putrajaya before this.
And despite having written an open letter to the prime minister to seek an explanation, no response has been forthcoming as of 4.30pm on 14 April 2009.
No press conference
But Najib did one other thing on the day that he announced his cabinet line-up that leaves journalists wondering about his sincerity in wanting media that are “empowered”. Apart from barring an online news site — the new media that Najib so glibly talked about embracing both at the Umno general assembly and in his 6 April speech — our sixth prime minister also pointedly did not hold a press conference after announcing his cabinet.
Instead, he held a special briefing/meeting with editors of selected media outfits. The new media were, of course, absent from this private session with the prime minister. Bernama — the state-owned wire service — was naturally among the invited, as were some other editors from the traditional media.
Why didn’t Najib hold a press conference to field questions from the media after he announced his cabinet line-up? Wouldn’t that have shown that he was willing to be held accountable for his decisions about the new cabinet? He did, after all, promise Malaysians this: “I will always stand up and be accountable for the decisions I make as your prime minister.”
Did Najib choose not to hold a press conference when he announced his cabinet on 9 April because that was the same day that Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri and Corporal Sirul Azhar Umar were sentenced to death for murdering Mongolian Altantuya Shaariibuu?
Both former prime ministers Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi held press conferences after announcing their cabinet. They took questions from the media, and while their replies may not have been satisfactory, at least they demonstrated a willingness to be questioned. Or to use Najib’s own words, to be held “accountable”.
Worse, by only inviting selected media to a private meeting after his announcement, Najib is demonstrating that he is only willing to engage with friendly media.
Bernama‘s report, for example, didn’t ask any hard-hitting questions of our new prime minister. For example, why did he appoint his cousin, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein as home minister? Why wasn’t Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin appointed? Why wasn’t the number of women increased in accordance with Malaysia’s international obligations under a United Nations treaty? How has the cabinet become leaner when there are more deputy ministers now than before?
But one shouldn’t blame Bernama. It is, after all, a state agency that can hardly be expected to be independent and fearless in its reporting of government. And Najib, we can be sure, was well aware of that.
Truth be told, seasoned journalists are not optimistic about Najib and how he will treat the media. To be fair, Najib should, of course, be judged by his actions as he himself has asked of the rakyat.
But it is precisely his actions that have led to a sense of disquiet among the media fraternity.
Even before 9 April when Najib’s office barred Merdeka Review and then chose not to have a press conference about the cabinet line-up, he was already part of a decision to bar six online media from covering its 59th general assembly.
There are other anecdotes that reveal that Najib will not take dissent from the media in his stride.
One seasoned journalist says her newspaper has been told before to watch their journalists because they were perceived as pro-opposition. A radio station was also recently told to watch its steps.
My own memory of Najib’s displeasure with the media dates back to 18 July 2007, the day after he announced that Malaysia had never been a secular state. theSun, where I was assistant news editor, ran reactions to his statement on the front page. For this the paper was warned because apparently Najib, who was then acting prime minister as Abdullah was away, had “hit the roof”. The paper subsequently backed off from reporting or discussing Najib’s statement in order to not lose its publishing permit.
Granted, these are anecdotes. Nothing can be proven in such instances, especially not Najib’s direct involvement in such directives to the media. After all, nearly all of these directives are not in black-and-white, as evidenced by the decision to bar Merdeka Review.
But even without these anecdotes, Najib’s office has proven in the last few days that the prime minister may say one thing, but his actions may mean something else altogether.
Indeed, he should be judged by his actions. One can only hope that he will remember that as much as Malaysians will of their new prime minister.
Jacqueline Ann Surin will only believe Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s promises on respecting media freedom if the government sets up a Parliamentary Select Committee to review all media-repressive laws. Till then, she knows that talk is cheap.