Press Freedom in Malaysia
The Day They Took Away Our ComputersOn Jan. 20, after a complaint from the youth wing of Malaysia's ruling party, police raided the Kuala Lumpur offices of malaysiakini, an independent news Web site, and carried off the office's computers. The complaint followed malaysiakini's publication of an anonymous letter the youth organization deemed seditious. An investigation is under way. Malaysiakini's editor, Steven Gan, now faces fines or a jail term, at least. At worst, malaysiakini could be shut down entirely.—WPR
When the police came to malaysiakini’s office last Monday, they gave us two options: divulge Petrof’s e-mail address [Petrof was the pseudonym assigned to the offending anonymous letter-writer] or surrender our computers.
For us, the first option was out of the question. We have promised that malaysiakini will protect the identity of our letter writers. Given the pervasive state of fear in Malaysia, the only way to encourage readers to express their opinions openly is the assurance that malaysiakini will not disclose their identity should they want to remain anonymous.
The police knew well that seizing all our computers would effectively shut us down. Yet, they proceeded to remove 19 CPUs, including four servers. They were told they need not confiscate all our hardware—only one computer in malaysiakini was related to their investigation.
Indeed, Supt Mohd Kamaruddin Md Din, head of Bukit Aman’s computer crime unit, was initially willing to consider this—his team met us in malaysiakini’s conference room to discuss the options at length. But eventually it appeared that the decision was not theirs to make. The directive from the top was to take it all.
Thus, for police chief Norian Mai to say that our computers were confiscated because we were uncooperative was hogwash. We were willing to cooperate as far as our journalistic ethics would allow us to.
That said, the high-handedness of the police action against malaysiakini is deplorable. Clearly, proper procedures were not followed. The police should have applied for a court order for malaysiakini to disclose Petrof’s e-mail address. If malaysiakini had refused, the publisher could be cited for contempt.
Back to work
Still, we were lucky to get our editorial operations back up within 10 hours—thanks to another server located elsewhere and our two-member technical team who worked overtime to establish our link with the back-up server despite having lost all our hardware.
Thanks go out to those who immediately lent us CPUs to keep our operations going until the police released malaysiakini’s equipment.
The support which we received—both local and international—has been tremendous.
Hours after the raid, 200 people held a candlelight vigil outside the malaysiakini office. This was despite the fact that malaysiakini was unable to inform readers about the raid. Apparently, they heard the news from other sources.
Not to forget those who have offered us office space after we received an eviction notice from the landlord, and those who have donated to malaysiakini’s Independent Media Fund. Since the police raid, a total of RM28,000 [US$7,368] has been received.
Much has been said about the Petrof letter. UNMO [the United Malays National Organization] Youth, which made the police report that led to the raid, claimed the letter contained seditious remarks.
It is, however, ironic that the debate in malaysiakini was sparked off by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad himself, who a few months ago suggested that the Malays should discard their “crutches” [that is, stop relying on government aid—WPR].
“There is a minority of Malays who are confident enough to think of doing away with the crutches, albeit gradually. But they are a very small minority. Their numbers are not going to increase any time soon. They are generally regarded as traitors to the Malay race,” he lamented in a July 29 speech at the Harvard Club of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur.
“Perhaps because I am trained as a doctor of medicine, I look at crutches differently. There was a time when doctors expected crutches to be used for life. But today, doctors get their patients on their feet as soon as possible.”
His statement was echoed by his deputy, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who urged Malays not to rely on special government aid.
“The time has come for us to give up the crutches and start walking independently,” he said. Apparently, Umno Youth did not get the message. But malaysiakini readers - both Malays and non-Malays - did. It was during this discussion in the readers forum that Petrof responded—albeit in rather emotional terms—to another letter which had passionately argued for the status quo to be kept.
‘Bankrupt of ideas’
As editor, I need not agree with all the letters that are published on malaysiakini.
The mark of a good editor is someone who is willing to go to the extent of publishing an article—be it a letter or an opinion piece—with which he or she vehemently disagrees. The editors in malaysiakini strive to meet such high standards, though at times we may fail.
We have published both pro- and anti-government articles, and those that berated us. Often we have run such letters without so much of a rebuttal. We believe in letting our readers lambaste or defend us. After all, the letters forum is their space for discussion.
As for Umno Youth, they are—according to malaysiakini columnist and author M Bakri Musa—“bankrupt of ideas.”
“Sadly this action of Umno Youth reveals my worst fears of the present generation of ‘Umnoputras.’ It is much easier to take them out of their kampong [village] and send them to the Oxfords and Cambridges of the world; alas more difficult to take the kampong out of them,” he added in a stinging letter to Khairy Jamaluddin, a member of Umno Youth.
Khairy, an Oxford graduate, is considered to be the rising star in Umno Youth and is also the son-in-law of Pak Lah, the next prime minister.
Khairy and his buddies in Umno Youth know that they are welcome to participate in our letters forum. After all, their boss, Hishammuddin Hussein onn took part in an online question-and-answer session with malaysiakini readers for more than two months in 2000.
While some may argue that malaysiakini has gained a lot of free publicity over the past week, the police action has nonetheless spooked some of our readers. We urge our readers not to give in to fear, or abandon malaysiakini.
And for those who think that this raid will put us out of business, they are dead wrong. Malaysiakini will continue to survive in one way or another. For us, closing shop is not an option.