Will the Malaysian media have the courage to speak out?

October 12th, 1998

I refer to the letter from Winslow Wong of Kuala Lumpur [The Nation, Oct 5] criticising the newspaper's coverage of events in Malaysia relating to its ousted deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim.

I agree with Wong that the Malaysian press is ''far from being free''. I would have been very surprised myself if I had seen articles in the local media in full support of the sacked deputy. But reporting ''responsibly'' and being ''self-censored'' is one thing; joining forces with the powers that be to relentlessly attack the man's character long before he had been brought before a court of law is quite another matter.

No one, not even the most ardent government supporter, will deny that Anwar underwent a ''trial by media'' long before he was brought before the High Court and charges were pressed. Affidavits were published in afternoon tabloids even before any court of law had seen them. Day after day, Malaysians were subjected to lurid descriptions of the alleged sexual activities of the man -- and he hadn't even been charged for a single offence yet.

The Malaysian media finally sunk to their lowest depths ever when last week a commentary from one of the country's widest-read English dailies actually called for ''errant'' foreign journalists to be detained without trial under Malaysia's Internal Security Act (ISA). 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?

I was a journalist myself. I was working for a local English daily when it was shut down by the government for five months during the infamous ''Operation Lallang'' of 1987, where over 100 people were arrested under the ISA. I know how carefully local journalists have to tread and how they have to report ''responsibly''. But there is a big difference between not taking sides and joining in for the kill.

On Wong's comment that the police are investigating the alleged beatings Anwar endured, I have great faith that they will conduct a thorough investigation -- just as I had great faith when they said that he was ''safe and sound'' when he was first detained.

On behalf of many other Malaysians, let me offer The Nation our heartiest congratulations on providing us with news that has been fair on both sides. Far from The Nation losing its credibility, it is our local media now that have completely lost theirs -- which is why even more Malaysians now have to look outside of Malaysia for news on our own country.

To those like Wong who are calling for the foreign media to be more fair, I would like to throw that same call to our own Malaysian media -- if they indeed have the courage.

Sabri Zain , Kuala Lumpur

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