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Feb 22, 2008

As permits await renewal, Malaysian newspapers compelled to censor opposition ahead of polls

Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) is concerned that the fate of two newspapers in Malaysia is being left hanging by the authorities following the expiration of their licence, and the debilitating effect this has had on their coverage of news in the run-up to the nationwide elections.

The annually renewable publishing permits for the Tamil-language "Makkal Osai" and the Mandarin-language "Oriental Daily" lapsed in December 2007 and have not been approved by outgoing Deputy Internal Security Minister Fu Ah Kiow, reports SEAPA's local partner, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), in a 21 February 2008 release.

The two newspapers, seen to be more critical than the other mainstream media closely tied to the government, have had to show a different slant after Parliament was dissolved on 13 February to make way for a general election on 8 March 2008.

The "Oriental Daily" editor has reportedly issued a set of guidelines on election coverage, which includes no frontpage coverage for the opposition. They are to black out the opposition's mission to deny the incumbent government a two-third majority rule, contentious issues of the ethnic Chinese, and "inflamatory" speeches by the opposition, reports the independent web-based daily "Malaysiakini" on 15 February 2008.

CIJ, which is monitoring the media's election coverage, observes that "Makkal Osai" has started to publish news favouring the incumbent government, joining the usual clamour of mainstream newspapers.

"We are concerned that the requirement for a publication permit has been effective in silencing critical voices and controlling any attempt for editorial independence. By delaying approval but allowing the paper to continue operating using lapsed permits, the caretaker government is putting the papers at its mercy and sending a signal to their owners to be compliant," CIJ said in its release.

CIJ notes that this seeming bureaucratic impediment is a third for "Oriental Daily". In 2006, its permit was not renewed until May, after several vocal columns were taken off. In 2002, its permit was suspended from September until December.

Meanwhile, unidentified callers have been warning "Makkal Osai" that it should be shut down, its general manager S.M. Periasamy told CIJ. Known for its critical position on issues related to the Indian-based political party in the incumbent government, the newspaper was suspended for a month in August 2007 after party leaders clamoured for its closure for publishing an image of Jesus Christ with a cigarette and a can of drink.

Again, SEAPA joins CIJ in calling for the repeal of the Printing Presses and Publications Act, the law that is instrumental in keeping all mainstream media in check and preventing future independent publications. The predicament that "Oriental Daily" and "Makkal Osai" are in now demonstrates clearly the draconian nature of the law and its effect in narrowing democratic space. This could not have happened at a worse time, as Malaysians are about to go to the polls and will need a free media to inform them of all available options so that they may vote in a government that will serve them well.


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