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What media freedom, prime minister?

(Laptop image by Winterling / Dreamstime)

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.

Najib delivering his speech at the Umno general assembly on 24 March

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.

Hishammuddin (Pic courtesy of theSun)

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.

Not hopeful

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.

The 18 July 2007 front page (Click on image to read column)

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.

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7 Responses to “What media freedom, prime minister?”

  1. Thanks Jac, for sharing your frank opinion in The Nut Graph, which the majority of rakyat agrees with, but couldn’t voice out (it remains bottled-up in their chests!).

    People’s perception of PM Najib is that he is one who can’t be trusted, period. With many questions from the Altantuya case including about the submarine deal that beg to be answered by the people’s court (not by our court of law which is pro-government), one can deduce how our PM operates. Other than the press freedom that he preaches, look at the illegitimate way he “rampas balik” the Perak government from PR! Is this what you call leadership traits?

    Action speaks louder than words because “talk is cheap”. Problem is with our elected officials, they all can “talk the talk” BUT can’t “walk the talk”. Your article nailed this issue right on target and I hope it travels far and wide so that more would know the truth.

    Cheers,
    ok (orang kampung)

  2. PM says:

    Jackie, well said.

    Considering Najib’s and some of his Cabinet’s actions over the past few days, I have strong doubts that they will walk the talk. For instance, his recent remarks about Chinese Malaysians being “ungrateful/unappreciative” versus his call for One Malaysia, and now your comments on what he said about media freedom, and then doing exactly the opposite. Pray tell me, how can the rakyat trust these type of politicians to move the country forward?

  3. James says:

    Jacqueline, well written…..talk is cheap!

  4. Najib isn’t Khairy nor Puad Zarkashi, both of whom told Umno members to embrace the new media.

    Notice that one of them did not get a post, and has mentioned that he is fine with it due to his dedication to reforming Umno Youth.

    In addition to that, [Najib] put his keris-wielding cousin as home minister, a post that is in line with the succession to one day become prime minister.

    In addition to this, women have once again been neglected. I noted that there isn’t a single Indian [Malaysian] woman on board. But then, neither the MIC nor the PPP have a valid candidate.

    DS Najib’s current situation goes to show that he is not hypocritical, just being very, very Shylock with his words.

  5. 3poundbabes says:

    PSC tu tak akan ujud selagi kerajaan yg sama masih memerintah. Menidakkan kebebasan akhbar telah menjadi darah daging mereka sejak zaman TDM. For umpteenth years, Malaysians have been deprived of balanced and unbiased reporting. TG for the internet. I was told by a BN stalwart that “HE” will start his cleaning act very soon. Life for those who are willing to tell the truth won’t be so rosy…… Like you said action speaks louder than… “HIS” action even before and right after his appointment as the new head honcho only confirms what the rakyat have in mind i.e. “MAHATHIRISM” is back and is back with full vengeance.

  6. Bakri says:

    If the ruling government governs responsibly, it has nothing to fear from a free press because a free press can only highlight the good work being done.

    It is only when a government is corrupt and incompetent that they fear the skeletons in their closet being exposed!

  7. Pratamad says:

    Good one, Jac.

    All things remain with the new PM, except with a new rhetoric. We are all watching very carefully. So what needs to be done is to prove that ‘talk but no walk’ rhetoric.

    Since then, has TNG or other new media any press conference with the new PM? By right, he should be very keen to talk to the media and communicate his plans. Keep an eye on such ‘media KPI’ on the new PM and share with us please.


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