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Monday, June 5, 2017

The forces of distraction

In the noise over The Star's layout, an important piece of news is ignored.
Media organisations in Malaysia tread on egg shells. When it emerged that the May 27 front page of The Star had upset a small minority of Malaysians, all hell broke loose. The paper was accused of insulting Islam and disrespecting Muslims.
That front page featured a photograph of Muslims praying. Above it was the headline “Malaysian terrorist leader”. The two items were separated by a line to indicate that they had nothing to do with each other. But for reasons known only to themselves, some people decided to turn on The Star and sensationalise the issue. Several police reports were lodged against the paper, and it is now being investigated for a suspected attempt to incite religious enmity.
The Star has been rattled. Without prompting, it has suspended its editor-in-chief and executive editor. Meanwhile, the Home Ministry has issued a show-cause letter to the paper.
Some political parties, as well as the Malay rights group Perkasa, have condemned The Star and told the government to withdraw its printing permit.
The sad thing is that the message of the headline – that a Malaysian is involved in terrorist activities – has been ignored.
Islamic extremism is on the rise among Malaysians. We throw our hands up in horror because Malaysians are fighting alongside ISIS in Syria and in the southern Philippines. We are shocked that young girls are willing to marry ISIS terrorists, having formed romantic liaisons with them on the web.
We would like to know how Malaysians can be lured into terrorist activities, be attracted to bloodshed and be aligned to ISIS? We want the authorities to stop this scourge, yet we do little to nip extremism in the bud.
Is the uproar over The Star’s layout a distraction from this issue?
Few Malaysians remember or realise that in the 1950s and 1960s, Utusan Melayu, which had offices in Malaya and Singapore, gave voice to the people and carried stories of legitimate public concern. Many Malay journalists and intellectuals fiercely defended Utusan’s independence. One of them was its editor, the late Said Zahari. He refused to bow to the politicians.
Even fewer people realise that Said led a strike by Utusan journalists and was imprisoned by the Singapore government for 17 years. This was the price he paid for refusing to compromise his principles, for refusing to bow down to government decrees and to back off from reporting the truth.
Today, editors and newspaper owners shudder at the slightest provocation from certain sections of the community. As the incident with The Star has shown, the response from some groups is usually hostile, with the oft repeated cry that Islam is being attacked. They make every attempt to shut down newspapers perceived to be against the Malay agenda. No debate is encouraged. No discussion is entertained.
One hopes that the nation will not, one day, pay the price for ignoring the unvarnished truth about the presence of terrorists among Malaysians. Support your journalists and encourage them to to tell the truth. When they are wrongly accused, stand up for them.
Mariam Mokhtar is an FMT columnist.

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