On 28 July, Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin issued a stern warning to mainstream newspapers that appear to him inclined to raise issues that are ‘unnecessarily contentious’ – in particular issues of religion and ethnicity – which he felt could undermine political stability in the country. It seems that the warning has already taken effect.
The anti-fuel hike demonstration, staged by the Opposition and some civil society groups in the vicinity of the domineering Petronas Twin Towers, did not get even a squeak in the mainstream press. It was as if this event was of no national and political significance and it was business as usual that Saturday afternoon, 29 July (when this demo occurred), in this particular area of Kuala Lumpur, with the usual crowd of shoppers milling around the shopping mall. Malaysiakini, to its credit, carried a report on the brief protest, which ended peacefully after police warned the demonstrators to disperse.
Contrast this media blackout with the coverage of another demonstration on Friday, 28 July. Most mainstream newspapers, particularly the English language press, ‘graced’ their front pages with images of UMNO Youth and its deputy chief and others mainly from the BN fold, who rightly protested against US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit to Malaysia.
"Brooding" performance, bleeding people
And like the rest of the ASEAN ministers who sat still on the fateful evening of Thursday, 27 July, seemingly engrossed by Rice’s “sombre” piano performance from the “brooding” repertoire of Johannes Brahms, the local media did not even bother to ask whether it was proper for Rice to entertain ASEAN ministers when most of Lebanon was burning and hundreds of Lebanese were being ruthlessly butchered by US-backed Israeli forces.
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As one blogger put it, Lebanese die as Condi plays piano in Malaysia:
It is certainly a myth that Nero played a fiddle while Rome burned—since the violin was not invented for a full fifteen centuries after his rule—but it is true Condi Rice, Bush’s Secretary of State, played the piano in Kuala Lumpur as Lebanese continue to die under a hard rain of Israeli bombs and apparently chemical weapons, a situation allowed to continue after Condi nixed the “false promise” of a cease-fire and thumbed her nose at the Syrians and Hezbollah.
“In keeping with her ’serious’ mood the Secretary of State performed two pieces from the brooding repertoire of Johannes Brahms—a solo Intermezzo number two, and Brahms Sonata for violin and piano, opus 108, with a Malaysian guest soloist,” reports the Gulf Times. “She arrived at the Istana hotel in downtown Kuala Lumpur for the annual gala dinner wearing a glamorous red dress and red jacket made of traditional Malaysian batik material…. Regional ministers swooned over the performance as they left the dinner. ‘Oh, beautiful, beautiful. She’s a great pianist. She’s a concert pianist,’ said Philippines Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo, who insisted that despite the geopolitical realities a good time was had by all. “I don’t think it was a sombre mood. We were in a happy mood, we had a lot of fun,” he said.
How utterly disgusting.
Yet, none of our media found Rice’s performance while blood was being spilt in Lebanon to bein bad taste. Neither did they highlight the irony of the UMNO protest when party president and Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi was playing host to Rice.
Blacking out the price hike demo
Back to the UMNO-led demonstration on Friday. Although it is true that the gravity of the anti-Rice demonstration on Friday was of far greater immediate significance than the fuel price hike protest the following day, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the latter should be conveniently swept under the editorial carpet. Both have their own merits in terms of news value.
Yet the mainstream newspapers, a few of which are apparently threatened by the freedom enjoyed by the Internet media, chose to look the other way even though they knew that their action, or rather inaction, was a travesty of journalistic ethics and professionalism.
Or, is one story considered to be ‘too sensitive’ than the other so that it deserves to be spiked by the editors who may have already got the cue from the authorities?
If the anti-fuel hike protest was rejected purely because it could cause political embarrassment to the government, then it goes to show that this talk of having to be conscious of “sensitive issues” that revolve around religion and ethnicity is just a smokescreen. Worse, censorship of this variety only serves as a mockery to the much-trumpeted notion of accountability, good governance and, above all, transparency.
Incidentally, what would a media council, insistently proposed by Zainuddin Maidin himself, have to say about this media blackout? Somehow, we don’t think it would be able to do much to address the persistent problem of “journalistic oversight”.