Hit Counter

"We don't tell lies .... up to a point"
by Sabri Zain <asabri@pc.jaring.my>

The statement by Utusan Malaysia Deputy Executive Chairman Zainuddin
Maidin in a recent Asiaweek interview had me in gasps. He said that
there is no government interference in the newspaper's day-to-day
operations and refuted allegations that his paper is not telling the
truth. "We're biased, " he admitted. "But we don't tell lies."

The image of poor Zainuddin pleading for the independence and
sovereignty of his newspaper reminded me a lot of Mr Salter - the
servile, sycophantic Foreign News editor of the ‘Daily Beast’, the
fictional British newspaper in Evelyn Waugh’s classic satire on
journalism “Scoop”. There is a scene from the book where Salter is
talking with Lord Copper, the all-powerful, despotic, senile and
dim-witted owner and publisher of the newspaper. While Lord Copper was
talking about how his newspaper must make a stand for ‘strong
government’ and ‘self-assertion’, Mr Salter’s side of the conversation
was limited to delighted expressions of assent and enthusiastic
agreement. Everytime Lord Copper was right, Salter would say,
“Definitely, Lord Copper”. When he was wrong, Salter would say “Up to a
point, Lord Copper.”

“Hong Kong belongs to us, doesn’t it, Salter?”

“Definitely, Lord Copper”

“Let me see, what’s the name of that place ... the capital of Japan
...Yokohama, isn’t it?”

“Up to a point, Lord Copper.”

The phrase “Up to a point ....” crops up a lot in the book - as, I’m
sure it would in many conversations between our country’s top editors
and our top leaders. Malaysian journalism has taken the skill of
writing between the lines - saying something without actually saying it
- to an art form. And Malaysians have always found that the best news is
usually nestled reading between those lines.

That is probably why the blatant and obviously hostile attacks on Anwar
Ibrahim in the weeks following his sacking last September shocked so
many. The meek, docile ‘responsible’ journalism that Malaysians had
tolerated so long suddenly became bold, fiery and downright coarse and
vulgar. In lurid and graphic detail, the newspapers all gave us crash
courses in sodomy and masturbation - we were all told who sodomised who,
how many times, where, when, how and which orifices and protuberances
were involved.

“In the old days, men had the rack. Now they have the press” - Oscar

The trial by media had actually begun many months before. There were
previously two golden rules governing what headline stories went on the
front page. Rule 1 was there must be a quote from Mahathir. Rule 2 was,
if the PM wasn’t in town, there must be a quote from Anwar. However, by
the middle of this year, we suddenly noticed less and less of our DPM in
the papers - let alone the front page. The only memorable news about
Anwar in the weeks leading up to his sacking were denials by him and the
PM that there was no rift between them and he was not being called on to
resign. The PM was even willing to “kiss him on the street” to prove the
point - a very risky proposition, considering the nature of the sexual
accusations that were to emerge later.

But being masters at reading between the lines, we all *knew* Anwar’s
days were numbered. But we certainly didn’t expect him to be sacked -
now *that* was news. Though TV3 certainly didn’t think so. The news of
the country losing a Deputy Prime Minister was the third or fourth
segment in the TV3 news that evening - after the top news of a change in
the Primary Six curriculum and some insignificant official opening by
some insignificant Minister in some insignificant place I can’t even

“We regard it as a promising little war .... and we intend to give it a
lot of publicity” - Evelyn Waugh, “Scoop”, 1938


The war of words between the Anwar supporters and the government
supporters was to begin - and it was a promising little war.
Unfortunately for the Anwarites, the government had outflanked their
enemy weeks before by getting rid of a number of key editors which they
felt would not be so compliant in the coming trial by media.

Soon, affidavits of sexual misconduct were hotly discussed and
deliberated fully in the newspapers - even before they had appeared in
any court of law. Lawyers raised a howl of outrage. The normally sober
Bar Council issued a scathing statement viewing ‘with dismay’ the
publication of the affidavits, which they regarded as ‘most unusual and
unprecedented’ and may have even been ‘subjudice and in contempt of
court’. The Council had this radical idea that a trial by media was ‘a
breach of the rules of natural justice and fair play’ and infringes
‘the constitutional right of a person to defend himself’.

With the press muzzled and only barking up where its masters told it to
bark, an avenue for the dissatisfaction of Anwar supporters was firmly
shut. They instead flocked by the thousands to his home, to community
halls around the country and, finally, to the streets. And they took to
the Internet. Anwar websites were already on-line the evening he was
sacked. The government was not so swift - the Prime Minister’s official
home page still had glowing tributes to his sacked Deputy weeks after
his dismissal!

“The first casualty when war comes is Truth”- US Senator Hiram Johnson,

The war of words continued. Gatherings of many thousands of people were
reported as being attended by a few hundred, sometimes a few dozen,
Anwar supporters. The mammoth gathering at the National Mosque and
Dataran Merdeka on the day of Anwar’s arrest - which eyewitness reports
indicated could have easily numbered 100,000 - were reported in the
local press as being attended by 5,000 people. Not only that, a Minster
was even reported to have said that they were mostly foreigners!

Whatever these ‘news’ reports were meant to accomplish, they certainly
were successful in convincing those 100,000 people not to believe them

The gag order by Justice Augustine Paul to halt to all public comments
on sodomy and corruption charges faced by Anwar when he was finally
brought before a court of law stemmed the steady flow of pornography
from the local press - but the lies certainly didn’t stop. Women in
tudungs quietly singing and chanting under a tree in front of the istana
are "prostitutes" screamed Utusan Malaysia - despite the Kuala Lumpur
police chief issuing a statement denying that any prostitutes were
involved in the demonstration. (This statement, by the way, did not see
the light of day in any of the mainstream Malay or English press - and
don't even dream there was a retraction from Utusan Malaysia) It makes
one wonder if the ‘prostitutes’ were actually the ones with the cameras,
notepads and press tags.

“Dear Sir, Your profession has, as usual, destroyed your brain.” -
George Bernard Shaw, in a letter to a journalist.


During all this, Mahathir of course continued with his ranting and
raving against the foreign press for *their* lies and unfairness. It was
therefore only a matter of time before a local journalist would have to
echo His Master’s Voice and follow suit - and he even managed to out-do
the PM! Malaysian journalism finally sunk to its lowest depths ever when
an opinion piece in the New Straits Times actually called for 'errant'
journalists to be detained without trial under the Internal Security
Act. These are journalists asking for other journalists to be detained
without trial. And these people are supposed to be the guardians of the
freedom of speech, thought and expression in Malaysia? Who guards the
guardians, I wonder.

I must concede that that this kind of naked hostility is not a common
trait in most journalists. Having been a journalist myself and being in
a profession where I have to work with journalists on a regular basis, I
know that most journalists are ethical and professional. Many of them
feel just as strongly for social justice and democratic freedoms as any
Reformist I know. They had been fighting these causes for years - at
times when many of the champions of the Reform movement today were
breaking up conferences on East Timor independence, calling human rights
NGOs traitors and urging the use of the ISA on party opponents.

One or two of these lonely, independent voices in the local media do
manage to get heard on rare occasions. There was a brave article that
appeared in the Life and Times section of the New Straits Times on
November 4 that took a candid look at the feelings and opinions of the
various people who flocked to the courthouse that week. The writers
quoted people saying things such as “I am here to support Anwar”, “We
don’t have the freedom to speak up”, “It’s impossible to be a journalist
here”, “I no longer have no faith in the system - the only way left is
to change it altogether”.

I say the article was brave because, while not exactly supportive of the
Reformists, it was probably the first one I had read in the mainstream
media that indicated that there were ordinary people who were not just
concerned about Anwar but about freedom and justice in Malaysia as
well. The writers questioned the usual party line parroted in the media
that 22 million Malaysians have unswerving loyalty to the government and
unshakable faith in its democratic institutions - and the answers they
got may have convinced many that, perhaps, this key issue here is not
only about Anwar Ibrahim - but about the far broader issues of justice,
freedom and democracy.

“The bigger the lie, the easier it will be for people to believe it” -
Adolf Hitler

Articles such as those are a candle in the darkness that envelopes
Malaysian journalism today. Unfortunately, isolated acts of independence
like that are submerged in the torrent of propaganda that tries to
disguise itself as news coverage. One of the shocks from last week’s
sessions in court was the admission on November 5 by the former head of
the Special Branch Datuk Mohd Said Awang that he may lie in court if
asked to do so by the PM. This was the top story in all the
international news wire services that day, as well as in the regional
newspapers the next day. “I might lie if asked to, says witness” was
the Singapore Straits Times headline.

And what were the corresponding headlines in the local Malay press?
“Dakwaan Salah Laku Seks Anwar: Mohd Said Percaya” - Berita Harian.
“Saksi Yakin Tuduhan Benar” - Utusan Malaysia.

It is this kind of editorial wool-pulling over the eyes that has made so
many people angry at the press. Some have reacted passively - by simply
not buying the papers anymore. The Opposition parties and GERAK have
singled out Utusan Malaysia as particularly vile and initiated a
campaign encouraging people to boycott the paper. Others have resorted
to more dramatic displays of frustration. An Utusan Malaysia vehicle was
pelted with rocks when it entered Kampong Baru on October 24th - the
scene of a violent confrontation between Reformasi supporters and the
riot police. A Reformasi demonstration in Kampong Baru last Saturday saw
demonstrators burning copies of Utusan Malaysia. One person I know takes
copies home from the office to be used as cat litter - proudly
displaying it to friends who come to his home.

Anwar himself has been more understanding of the situation local
reporters face. During the massive demonstration at the National Mosque
on September 20th, just hours before Anwar was arrested, a TV3 crew was
pelted with drink cartons to shouts of Penipu!" "Anjing!" from the
crowd. Fortunately, Anwar ordered them to calm down, quipping "Let them
do their job ... I definitely know that particular crew secretly
supports me!"

In one of the sessions in court last week, Anwar actually turned to
reporters in the gallery, pleading with them to be more ‘objective’.
Complaining that local media reports on his trial were “terrible”, he
quickly smiled and said “I understand it’s not your fault. It’s your

“A free press can, of course, be good or bad; but certainly, without
freedom, the press will never be anything but bad” - Albert Camus


Today, November 8th 1998, Southeast Asian journalists launched a new
regional alliance in Bangkok to fight for press freedom and to monitor
attacks on reporters. The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) will
set up a secretariat in Bangkok next year to urge governments to
overturn repressive media laws and monitor attacks on journalists.
Delegates from independent journalist associations in the Philippines,
Indonesia and Thailand will steer the SEAPA, formed during a weekend
seminar here on press freedom in Southeast Asia organised by the
Reporters' Association of Thailand.

I don’t know why no Malaysian journalist associations were represented
at the meeting. Perhaps they felt out of place at a forum discussing
press freedom. But if our own local journalists feel that the fight for
press freedom is a futile one, we as readers have a duty to prove them
wrong. Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan, a former journalist
himself, told the forum it is the responsibility of each member of
society “to safeguard the freedom of the press” which he said was “a
basic human right”. People just don’t like being lied to, being deceived
and having their intelligence insulted. Malaysians have resorted to
using the Internet as the printing press of the nation, photocopying,
faxing, posting and distributing news and views they cannot find in
their own local media. They have taken it upon themselves to assume a
task which the local press have seen fit to neglect.

If I were a journalist I would be ashamed of that. And until journalists
stand up to their editors and to the people that rule our editors,
readers will just continue not buying their papers and seek elsewhere
for truth. Because lies, vested interests, hidden agendas and plain old
official propaganda that are disguised as Truth can only be believed -
up to a point.

@ @

Sabri Zain

BERITA REFORMASI di http://reformnews.cjb.net

"For God knows the Truth and to Him do we return."
- 'Sejarah Melayu' at http://malaya.cjb.net

"They invade our space and we fall back.
They assimilate entire worlds and we fall back.
-Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Star Trek 'First Contact'

Back to Justice for Anwar and Reformasi Index Page