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Thursday, June 1, 2017

Home Ministry holds a mightier pen than The Star’s



QUESTION TIME | The latest episode with The Star newspaper is clear indication that the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 (PPPA), amended in 2012, still remains a vicious weapon that can be opportunistically wielded to ensure print newspapers and publications stay in line.
It matters not one bit whether The Star is right or wrong, so long as the Home Ministry holds that it is wrong. For the Home Ministry has the right to remove The Star’s licence at the stroke of a pen - showing the ministry holds a mightier one than the paper’s own.
The paper knows that, which is why it apologised quickly for putting a headline which said “Malaysian terrorist leader” above the picture of Muslims praying, even though that decision is quite defensible from an editorial point of view. How do you fight someone who holds a knife to your throat?
On the front page in dispute, it is clear that the headline refers to an article on the inside pages, and the photo below it is clearly captioned, “Holy month starts: Muslims performing Terawih prayers at the Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin Mosque in Putrajaya. Today is the first day of Ramadan.”
What was The Star confronted with when it made the editorial decision to do so? First, it wanted to highlight that there was a Malaysian terrorist leader in the Philippines - that was the big news of the day. It was also the start of Ramadan, and it wanted to commemorate the occasion with a picture on the front page, as it usually does.
To differentiate the two, there was a line drawn. Clear enough for most people.
When I saw the report, I did not see any attempt at all to insult Islam and thought nothing of it as did many others. Some did and made police reports, and the Home Ministry sent a show-cause letter to paper. This raises legitimate questions of whether outrage was manufactured.
For making an attempt to mark Ramadan with a suitable picture while at the same time reporting the most important news of the day, The Star gets hauled up. That’s not fair but that’s the way things are with the PPPA, a terrible piece of legislation which puts too much power in the hands of the Home Ministry.
You may not believe this, but the Home Ministry even takes offence if an advertisement for an alcoholic drink faces reports in newspapers involving certain dignitaries, events and topics.
Under the PPPA, any newspaper requires a licence to be issued by the home affairs minister who can revoke it at any time. It was amended slightly in 2012 to give the impression of more freedom by not requiring yearly renewal. The Act still says the decision of the minister (of home affairs) to revoke licences is final under Section 13A (1), which states that “Any decision of the Minister to refuse to grant or to revoke or to suspend a licence or permit shall be final”.
The Star has not stopped at an apology but has offered up two of its top editors as sacrificial lambs - its editor-in-chief Leanne Goh Lee Yen and executive editor Dorairaj Nadason, who will both be suspended pending investigation and inquiry.
Meantime Wong Chun Wai, Star Media Group chief executive officer, also a former chief editor, will oversee editorial operations during this period, stepping into the role of saviour of the situation just as he did when an article I wrote in February 2010 resulted in a similar show-cause letter.
Police probe
The Star is no stranger to show-cause letters, and most of these have been in connection with “insulting” Islam. In February 2012 for instance, they got one for publishing a photograph of singer Erykah Badu with body art that included two markings with the Arabic word for "Allah". The editors, who knew no Arabic, did not know that’s what was meant.
Way back in the 80s, it was also hauled up for insulting Islam; once when an insensitive writer said that it was going to be boring watching TV because of an ongoing Quran-reading competition, and another time a foreign cartoon on Iran’s religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini. It was suspended post Operation Lalang in 1987 for a few months.
The article I wrote was a commentary over the whipping of women under syariah law for the first time ever in Malaysia. I argued that syariah law should not be permitted to mete out greater punishments than what is prescribed under civil and criminal law, which prohibited caning for women. It was nothing to do about insulting Islam. The article has been taken down from The Star’swebsite but it can be viewed here in its entirety.
After identical police reports were lodged against me over the article and Malay groups expressed their concern, Wong, then editor-in-chief, issued a public apology. I was not asked to make an apology and I did not. My name was even mentioned at sermons made in various mosques. I certainly felt that an orchestrated attempt was made to whip up sentiment against me and The Star, much the way it is now.
I was the subject of a police investigation and an assistant superintendent of police questioned me (very politely and professionally) for some three hours in the presence of the company’s lawyer, the line of questioning largely being whether I considered other religions to be superior to Islam. No charges were brought against me.
This sensitivity over the religion is rather over the top and it is used basically as an excuse to rein in publications that are thought to be overstepping the limits. The Star has been recently more vocal about non-Muslim rights and this probably is a message to them to tone it.
Although my weekly column in The Star then was stopped for a while (I volunteered to do that but if I had not, I think it would have come to the same thing anyway), I was not suspended from my job function the way the two editors now have been.
I know both Leanne and Dorairaj personally and worked with them closely for over three years. They are professionals and not the kind of people who would allow Islam, or any other religion for that matter, to be wilfully insulted in the paper. That they have to be sacrificed in this political game of threat and compliance is rather sad and regrettable but this is part of the Malaysian way of life.
The score remains the same, though. If there is to be a responsible and free press which is independent of all partisan interests, then the PPPA simply has to go. Otherwise newspapers have no choice but to play ball with the government of the day, as they have done before.
And that’s rather convenient for the government. 

P GUNASEGARAM was managing editor at The Star between September 2008 and December 2011. He says the Malaysian public is far readier for honest, reasoned debate about anything, including religion, than the authorities. E-mail: t.p.guna@gmail.com. -Mkini

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