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NST show-cause letter: Eroding press freedom?

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Thinking Malaysians must be bewildered at the government's show-cause letter to the New Straits Times over its publication of a controversial syndicated cartoon that, some say, has hurt the feelings of Muslims in Malaysia.

The Internal Security Ministry said the cartoon had breached the conditions of the newspaper’s publishing permit under the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, adding that the sketch was inappropriate and could invite negative reactions in the country, especially among Muslims.

This is not an auspicious way for Datuk Zainuddin Maidin to begin his tenure as Information Minister and it does not augur well for Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's commitment to more open government.

While we understand the anger and hurt the NST cartoon may have caused some quarters, we are concerned that any drastic action, such as the possible suspension of the daily, could only lead to further deterioration of press freedom in the country.

Many discerning Malaysians will see that there is a difference between the NST cartoon and the Danish caricatures, which were really obnoxious. So why then this seemingly harsh reaction against the NST? The NST, for its part, has wondered whether politics and “other personal vendettas” were involved.

Recent incidents in the wake of the caricature controversy have revealed a trend of increasing and unnecessary government intervention in the media. NSTP group deputy chairman and editorial advisor Kalimullah Hassan, in his column on 16 February 2006, on the eve of a cabinet reshuffle, observed: “Zainuddin has had an uneasy relationship with senior executives of some of the mainstream media. It is ironic that just a day before his appointment was announced, Zainuddin sought the sacking of the top editors of the New Straits Times Group in a closed-door UMNO information bureau meeting.” If this is true, it is certainly cause for concern.

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Equally troubling is the call by some quarters for the obnoxious Internal Security Act – a law that denies its victims the right to a fair trial – to be used against those who, they claim, have abused freedom of expression. Such drastic action will only promote a culture of self-censorship and fear and further erode press freedom.

Press freedom should not be sacrificed to serve the political purposes of one group fighting against another for control and supremacy. Neither should certain quarters try to 'hijack' this controversy in order to advance their motive of further restricting press freedom in Malaysia. We would rather the government, newspapers, civil society and other concerned Malaysians engage in meaningful and sober dialogue that could lead us to a better understanding of the real issues at hand.

Dr Mustafa K Anuar and Anil Netto
Joint coordinators, Charter 2000-Aliran
24 February 2006

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