Arrests of journalists: Najib goes one better than Dr M

  • 106 arrests under Ops Lalang, 150+ arrests under Ops Lalang 2
  • Ongoing attempts to silence dissenting voices; we need to speak up

Arrests of journalists: Najib goes one better than Dr M[UPDATE: TMI CEO and The Edge Media group CEO arrested too; see below]
 

OVER the weekend, independent Malaysian film-maker and musician Pete Teo wrote a Facebook post aimed at those who were attempting to reform Malaysia “from the inside.”
 
Not one to mince his words, he said, “Malaysia is in deep shit. You and I both know this.
 
“To change things, reformers need to be brave, determined and righteous. It has taken 50 years for us to fall this far, and the road to revitalising this country will be equally long and arduous. You will need to be driven by vision, integrity and courage to last the distance.
 
“Yet all I hear from you – even as our police harass civil society and opposition figures by abusing the Sedition Act – is silence,” he added.
 
About 20 hours after Teo posted this on his Facebook page, Malaysian police, accompanied by officers of industry regulator the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), raided the office of news portal The Malaysian Insider (TMI).
 
In an affirmation that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, they needed about a dozen men. They came in at 5:52pm on March 30, examined an editor’s computer, interviewed managing editor Lionel Morais, Malay-language news editor Amin Shah Iskandar, and features and analysis editor Zulkifli Sulong – then proceeded to arrest these three men.
 
The three were arrested over a March 25 report on hudud related to the Conference of Rulers, TMI said in its own report of the incident. They are being investigated under the Sedition Act and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, the latter of which deals with “improper use of network facilities or network services.”
 
The March 25 report in TMI said that the Conference of Rulers had rejected a proposal to amend a federal law that would pave the way for hudud or Islamic law to be enforced in the state of Kelantan. The Keeper of the Rulers’ Seal lodged a police report on March 26 to deny that the Conference of Rulers had discussed the matter and that it had ever issued any statement on hudud in Kelantan.
 
“On March 29, Kedah Umno Youth filed a police report against The Malaysian Insider and called for stern action against the portal over the report,” TMI said in its report.
 
“Barisan Nasional MPs (Members of Parliament) also complained about the matter in Parliament. Over the last two days, Umno mouthpiece Utusan Malaysia has carried several reports calling for action against the portal,” TMI said.
 
Umno Youth is the youth wing of Umno, the dominant party in the ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional.
 
Now, because there was a police report lodged, the police were well within their rights to investigate. Indeed, they were duty-bound to do so. And perhaps a crime was committed. We don’t know what exactly is being investigated.
 
But compare their heavy-handed manner here with how they investigate ruling politicians and government-controlled media – that is, when they even deign to do so.
 
TMI is owned by The Edge Media Group, whose group chief executive editor and publisher Ho Kay Tat said, “We do not think that the arrests were necessary as they [the three editors] can meet the police any time to have their statements taken.
 
“We call on the police to release them immediately,” he added.

[Update]
 
This morning (March 31), police arrested Ho and TMI chief executive Jahabar Sadiq as well. They were arrested when they turned up at the Dang Wangi police station in Kuala Lumpur for their statements to be taken.
 
Police said they would apply for a remand order for the duo and three other TMI editors arrested last night, TMI reported.
 
“These arrests appear to go beyond just our reportage about one hudud article,” Jahabar said before he was arrested. "The Malaysian Insider will continue to report without fear or favour despite these arrests.”
 
[End Update]
 
This is not the first time a Malaysian journalist has been arrested under the Sedition Act. Last September, Malaysiakini assistant editor Susan Loone was also hauled up for merely doing her job.
 
Malaysiakini, like TMI, is another independent online news portal. Loone had written a story after interviewing Penang state executive councillor Phee Boon Poh by telephone while he was in police custody.
 
Calling for all charges against her to be dropped, the Institute of Journalists Malaysia said, “We believe it is the right of all journalists to report fairly, accurately and impartially on all events of public interest.”
 
The arrest of the TMI journalists comes in the wake of the biggest crackdown of free speech ever in Malaysia. Over the past few months, the government led by Prime Minister Najib Razak has arrested more than 150 people – Opposition politicians, civil society advocates, activists, students and academics – for a variety of offences.
 
Most of these diverse offences have one common thread: They cast the Najib administration, and some of the instruments of power it wields, in a bad light.
 
These arrests also come in the wake of a continuing series of exposés that TMI, aided by articles in The Sarawak Report blog as well as in TMI’s sister publication The Edge business weekly, has been running on what is being described as the “mother” of all financial scandals: 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB), whose alleged manoeuvrings put to shame anything you’ve seen  on The Wolf of Wall Street.
 
No wonder some have been describing the current spate of arrests as Operation Lalang 2 (or Ops Lalang 2), a reflection of the crackdown under former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s longest-serving premier, in 1987.
 
That year, the Mahathir administration arrested 106 activists, Opposition politicians, academics, students, artistes, parishioners and others under the Internal Security Act (ISA). He didn’t arrest journalists though – in that area, he went one step further than Najib, closing down newspapers by revoking their publishing licences.
 
Where Najib has gone one up on Dr Mahathir is with the number of arrests, and the opaque and varying reasons for them. Except for the most sycophantic of his followers, most of whom have a vested interest in blocking media scrutiny of their activities, very few can rationalise these arrests.
 
In today’s world of Internet memes and social media hashtags, only one term can properly describe these actions: #Facepalm.
 
But I am being disingenuous, forgive me. The arrests can be rationalised. It’s to create a climate of fear and intimidation that discourages public discourse and scrutiny, and punishes independent thinkers. It is to maintain the status quo and uphold what is now one of the most repressive regimes in South-East Asia, even as Malaysia chairs the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean).
 
It is to prosecute the innocent and protect the guilty.
 
In December 2013, as this same government suspended weekly newsmagazine The Heat, I quoted the poem by Protestant pastor and social activist Martin Niemöller:
 

First they came for the Communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the Socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

 
I wrote then, “When are the rest going to speak out? Because if this government has its way and successfully brings the online media as well to heel, as it has done with the mainstream media and especially courageous publications like The Heat, who’s going to be left to speak for you when they do come for you?”
 
Well, they are coming for us. For all of us who care enough for the country to speak out. As Pete Teo has noted, it’s time for the deafening silence to end. It’s time for Malaysians to wake up.

Related Stories:
 
Malaysians need their MPs to be on the ball come Oct
 
First they came for old media, then …
 
Malaysia slips in global Internet freedom ranking
 
Internet censorship: You’ve already won, Dr Mahathir
 
Our rights, online and offline

MCMC probes The Malaysian Insider over spyware story
 
 
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