Rage, rage against the dying of the light

  • Editors and media executives arrested in Malaysia for alleged sedition
  • Issue is not whether they are at fault, but the stifling of public discourse
Rage, rage against the dying of the lightSINGAPORE was abuzz this week with debate and comments about a 17-year-old boy called Amos Yee, who posted what was deemed a very rude and insensitive video on YouTube railing against the late Lee Kuan Yew, as well as Christians.
 
To confess, I’ve only lived six months here and my emotional assimilation into the societal fabric of this island-state is still on-going.
 
For while ‘Famous Amos’ topped headlines here, my thoughts were up north – riveted on the news that Ho Kay Tat, Jahabar Sadiq, Lionel Andrew Morais, Amin Shah Iskandar and Zulkifli Sulong from The Malaysian Insider (TMI) were arrested under the Sedition Act over a report headlined Council of Rulers opposes amendments needed to enforce hudud.
 
While friends in Kuala Lumpur were holding a candlelight vigil outside the Dang Wangi police station, I held one of my own, with an electric candle on my desk in silent, solo solidarity.
 
All five were detained overnight and have since been released – a thankfully anti-climactic end to an outrageous development that shouldn’t have taken place at all.
 
The most heart-breaking thing about this whole incident isn’t the fact that these arrests happened in the first place – because, frankly, the cynic in me was wondering what took them so long.
 
It is the fact that after the news broke, I got more than one message from friends telling me to “be careful” about what I said or to “be vigilant.”
 
I suppose my reputation for blunt-speak precedes me.
 
Even my Singaporean friends, upon me telling them about what had happened, immediately told me to exercise caution. “Don’t put yourself in a spot where you get arrested when you go back to Malaysia,” said one very dear friend.
 
And keep in mind I’m a mere technology journalist. I can only imagine what manner or volume of well-meaning caution my professional peers who cover the news and politics beats are receiving.
 
I’m sorry dear friends, but this is where I must draw the line – I refuse to censor myself or my opinions out of fear of retribution.
 
This is where I will, and must, stand up and shout: “No! You cannot, you must not, think this way. Thinking that way means they’ve won.”
 
As my colleague A. Asohan has said, these moves are “to create a climate of fear and intimidation that discourages public discourse and scrutiny, and punishes independent thinkers.”
 
Before his own arrest, TMI chief executive Jahabar was quoted as saying: “The Malaysian Insider will continue to report without fear or favour despite these arrests. It is business as usual.”
 
And it must be business as usual. To do otherwise would set a worrying precedent. Journalists don’t do this line of work to “be safe,” nor should we do this line of work to be liked.
 
Sure, TMI isn’t perfect. I too have raised an eyebrow on more than one occasion at some of its articles.
 
But you know what? No media outlet is perfect (Hello Utusan!) and yes, we are all flawed in some form or fashion.
 
But to arrest journalists under the draconic Sedition Act just because one doesn’t like or agree with what has been published? This speaks more about those to walk the corridors of power than this increasingly demonised profession we’ve embraced as our calling.
 
As expressed by the Foreign Correspondents Club of Malaysia:
 
“Authorities must ask if they are cracking down on alleged sedition, or merely ‘bad’ reporting. If it is the latter, then it is sufficient to call on all witnesses and suspects to record their statements as there is no good reason to arrest and detain them overnight, much less to remand them for several more days.
 
“No TMI personnel has tried to flee from investigations even from last week when police reports were first filed against the news portal. It is of great concern that the police are applying ‘preventive measures’ to reporters, as if they were terrorists.”
 
This is a point that bears repeating: The media fraternity is outraged not because we’re excusing our own from shoddy work, nor are we playing the ‘victim’ card.
 
We are outraged because the TMI arrests were nothing more than an utterly heavy-handed reaction to an issue that could have been resolved in a myriad of other ways.
 
I am even more disheartened by the number of armchair warriors jumping with glee at what they feel is ‘overdue just desserts’ for the editorial line taken by some online news outlets.
 
If you don’t like what a news organisation is reporting, if you think that the issues have been distorted, then don’t read it. If you don’t like what’s being broadcasted, change the channel. You can demand that errors be corrected, that facts be verified, and seek redress in a court of law.
 
These are the options for dealing with what you feel is a reprehensible and irresponsible press corps.
 
That is your right and you should exercise it – for that is the most powerful weapon you as a reader and citizen can wield over the press.
 
Laugh if you will, but it’s not unlike Tinkerbell in Peter Pan losing her power because “people didn’t believe anymore” – that’s right, we live or die by the number of eyeballs.
 
But it is not okay to arrest journalists for doing their job, however badly or controversially. It is not okay to be okay with this happening at all!
 
I’m not saying journalists are above the law (by the way, neither should the Government nor the police be held above it). I’m not saying that journalists deserve special treatment.
 
But we are supposed to serve the public. We are supposed to report on issues and matters of public interest.
 
Could we as a professional community, do a better job of it? Yes. But right now, doing it at all – without fear or favour, no less – is at stake.
 
And once that is lost, what then?
 
Will you stand with us while we stand up against being silenced? Will you support our mandate to ask what must be asked, and write what has been read, while you rightfully demand that we do better by you? To be your Fourth Estate?
 
Asohan has cited the poem by Protestant pastor and social activist Martin Niemöller many times and indeed, it is a fitting piece of prose for what is happening today.
 
Let me contribute to the cited literature with some verses by Dylan Thomas – and yes, before you point it out, I am well aware that this particular poem is about old age and dying. But to me, the words seem apropos because if nothing changes, if no stand is made, then the outcome seems inevitable:
 
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
 
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
 
So yes, I will speak out before there is no one left to speak out for others and me. And yes, I will rage against the dying of the light.
 
Do not expect me to go gentle into that good night.
 
Related Stories:
 
Arrests of journalists: Najib goes one better than Dr M
 
First they came for old media, then …
 
Malaysia slips in global Internet freedom ranking

 
 
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