Archive for May, 2008

Mahathir the blogger millionaire

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has now achieved slightly more than a million hits in the first month of his blogging venture. A stunning achievement. (See here.)

 

But what is also noteworthy — and a reminder to us all — is that he now finds blogging a necessity in his effort to reach out to his constituency given that his access to the mainstream media, which he used to domesticate through various means when he was in power, has not been as easy as it used to be.

 

Unlike his anointed successor Abdullah, he has come to the conclusion that the mainstream media might become ‘irrelevant’ if they don’t reform themselves adequately. In short, Mahathir now grumbles about the state of the country’s media.

 

Mahathir should know better about the mainstream media and the present state of media freedom in the country because he was primarily responsible for the emasculation of the mainstream press (and other media) to the extent that concerned and curious Malaysians have to turn to alternative sources of information and news particularly in the Internet. This is largely the reason for the proliferation of websites and blogs in the country over the years especially since the Reformasi days that came about after Mahathir expelled Anwar Ibrahim from the government and Umno in 1998. 

 

When press freedom is not institutionalised, whatever ‘openness’ that appears from time to time in the press often hinges on the discretion of the Home Minister and the government of the day. Put another way, such fluctuating ‘freedom’ discourages investigative journalism. If anything, it gives rise to self-censorship and even irresponsible and unethical journalism.

 

This is the media legacy that Mahathir handed over to the present Abdullah administration. As they say, you reap what you sow.

 

 

Pudu Prison and its sell-mates

Looks like Malaysians in general, and in particular possibly certain politicians, developers and entrepreneurs, have displayed yet again their utter contempt for things they consider old and do not promise good monetary returns. And this time around it’s the turn of the colonial Pudu Prison in Kuala Lumpur that is scheduled to be torn down later this year to make way for some commercial centre and condominium complex on a prime area. (See here.)

Built in 1895, the prison probably seems, to certain profit-motivated people, like a sore thumb standing next to an exciting commercial area in Bukit Bintang. Never mind the prison’s historical and cultural value which, in their minds, would not be able to attract and fascinate especially foreign tourists. After all, aren’t these tourists supposed to come here and shop till they drop dead?

 

If most things in life are to be measured only in terms of ringgit and sen, then those Cambodians, for example, must be mad to keep and transform a torture site under the Khmer Rouge regime into a museum for the locals and foreigners to witness their gory history in physical terms. (This is, of course, not to imply in any way that the acts of violence that happened in the Pudu Prison are  comparable to the atrocities that occurred in the Cambodian torture place.)

 

Security Prison 21 (S-21), which is now turned into the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, was a place where thousands of mostly Cambodians were tortured by the Khmer Rouge regime in the period 1975-1979. Torture paraphernalia, including torture beds, are maintained and put on display as a cold reminder of the dark days in Cambodian history. 

 

 

At the risk of sounding frivolous, the Cambodians could have auctioned off one of those torture beds and dozens of the skulls of the torture victims at the Christie’s simply for money. This is apart from turning the entire site of torture into a theme park perhaps.

 

This example suggests that Cambodians may be relatively poor materially, but they appear to know where to draw the crucial line between crass commercialism and materialism on the one hand and the invaluable price of historical and cultural heritage on the other.

 

Engaging Malaysian bloggers

Statements made by the powers-that-be in the last few days seem to have cast doubts over the assurance given recently by Information Minister Shabery Cheek that the post-March 8 federal government has acquired an enlightened view about free press and the Internet. Read below for recent developments:

 

1. theSun yesterday (27th May) quoted a report from Chinese daily Nanyang Siang Pau that,

 

Police are monitoring blog sites and will investigate bloggers for seditious and misleading postings.

 

If investigations confirm that such postings are seditious and misleading, the police can haul the bloggers concerned to court under the Sedition Act and Communications and Multimedia Act, Nanyang Siang Pau reported yesterday.

 

Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Musa Hassan said police have set up a cyber crimes unit under the Commercial Crime Investigation Department and will investigate reports lodged against bloggers by members of the public or members of the force itself.

 

This goes to show that bloggers are constantly being monitored by the authorities, an Orwellian phenomenon that can cause bloggers in particular and other Internet users in general to be cautious, restrained, fearful and self-censoring even. 

  

2. The Star yesterday (27th May) reported:

 

Twenty-two websites and blogs have been investigated by the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) for airing false, pornographic and baseless allegations, the Dewan Negara was told.

 

Deputy Energy, Water and Communications Minister Datuk Joseph Salang Gandum told Senator Sharifah Azizah Syed Zain that out of those blogs investigated, the commission had also forwarded three investigation papers to the Attorney-General’s Chambers.

 

As in the previous report, this news report yet again indicates the monitoring by a state apparatus of bloggers and websites. What constitute ‘false’ and ‘baseless’ allegations and ‘misleading’ information hinge on the definition preferred by the authorities. This can become a contentious issue among bloggers and civil society groups, particularly those who seek and disseminate information and news that are ‘alternative’ to the ones dished out by the mainstream media and the government.

  

3. The Star yesterday also reported a reminder given by PM Abdullah Badawi presumably to mainstream journalists and bloggers that there is ‘No such thing as unlimited (media) freedom’. As I mentioned elsewhere, there is indeed no such thing as absolute or unlimited freedom of the media – and most media professionals and activists, I believe, are already aware of that and indeed have not demanded for that.

 

In the same news report, Abdullah was also quoted as defending the mainstream media: ‘quality journalism was still by far the domain of the old media.’

 

While Abdullah still has faith in the mainstream press, leaders in Pakatan Rakyat, for instance, appeared to have a different thought altogether about this issue. theSun reported yesterday:

 

Pakatan Rakyat (PR) has called on Malaysians to boycott Utusan and Mingguan Malaysia for provoking ethnic sentiments.

 

In a joint statement, Opposition Leader Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail said although there were signs that the mainstream media which are mostly controlled by Barisan Nasional component parties are slowly opening up, it is clear that they continue to be unfair and one-sided.

 

Not only the coverage of parties in PR is limited, it is full of distortions and information to discredit the PR and its leaders.

 

If it is true that those Malay-language papers did distort — and continue to distort — information so as to discredit Pakatan leaders, then it brings into question the Malay papers’ very own credibility, journalistic ethics, social responsibility and commitment to truth. And, consequently, do you blame concerned and discerning citizens for seeking ‘alternative’ sources of news and information such as blogs and websites?

 

And today (see here) we’re told that the government will no longer remain ‘silent’, but instead will ‘engage’ the bloggers in cyberspace. Is this going to be a ‘friendly’ intellectual engagement, or are we asking too much here?

 

 

A walk on the wild side of life

Not many cities and towns in this country of ours provide enough parks and botanical gardens, if at all, for their urban occupants. In George Town, Penang, the luxuriant Botanic Gardens is one of the few green places that have been left untouched so far by the callous hands of certain developers and politicians.

 

According to the Gardens’ website:

 

The Penang Botanic Gardens, more popularly known as “Waterfall Gardens”, was established by the British way back in 1884 from an old granite quarry site. It lies in a deep valley, at the foot of 366 feet jungle clad hills, bound by evergreen tropical rainforests, divided by a cascading stream that meanders through a sprawling 29 hectares of prime and undulating grounds.

 

Its lush greenery and tranquil setting makes it a favourite park and a popular tourist attraction. It is Penang’s unique natural heritage, being the only one of its kind in Malaysia. Besides, being a repository of flora & fauna, unique to the country and to the region, it serves as a “green lung” for metropolitan Penang.

 

The flora and fauna of the Gardens is not only a feast to the human eyes, but also serves as a good reminder that Man (and Woman) cannot be divorced from their natural environment.

 

 

The smells of the trees, the flowers, the grass and the fresh air are simply exhilarating. They can be an effective, if temporary, balm for one’s stressed-out life.

 

It is therefore not surprising that the Gardens has become a favourite spot for the urban Penangites to simply enjoy the natural habitat, and to walk, jog or run. Additionally, the noise from the lurking monkeys, the chirping birds, the human chatter, the kids’ howling, and the endless splash of the waterfalls make a beautiful cacophony.

 

People do other things as well in the Botanic Gardens, such as jungle trekking, aerobic dance, treasure hunt, school band and Qigong, the kinds of activities that make the place pleasurable and enjoyable.

 

 

 

In other countries, parks are not only meant for the preservation and protection of natural habitat, but also double up as a place for recreational activities, such as outdoor musical entertainment, sports, etc. In a sense, such activities serve a useful purpose of forging social interaction among the people, apart from encouraging the appreciation of the natural habitat.

 

What I am trying to say here is that town planners, politicians, developers and other related people, must always be reminded of the fact that greenery, parks and gardens (not the Taman Sri XXX variety) are as essential as, if not more valuable than, commercial buildings, housing estates and apartments. Cities and towns must be planned and built for human beings, not humanoids.

  

  

Available green space in cities and towns should not be almost automatically earmarked for ‘development’. There must be a deliberate policy and concerted efforts on the part of policymakers to preserve green lungs and to create parks and botanic gardens for the urban dwellers and others. After all, urban centres are a human construct that can, and should be, planned carefully for the benefit of the present and future generations.

 

A walk on the ‘wild side’ would do you wonders.

 

Benar Walk for media freedom

Malaysian journalists and concerned citizens will take a symbolic walk for media freedom at Dataran Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur and head for the National Press Club on 1st June 2008 (Sunday) at 9.00 am. Check this out for details.

 

Seeking faith in the Information Minister and the Press

In an interview conducted by Sunday Star’s Shahanaaz Habib and which was published today (titled ‘Putting his faith in a free press’), Information Minister Ahmad Shabery Cheek shared his sentiments about a free press. While there were things said by the Minister that are heart-warming, such as promoting the idea of a free public debate especially amongst politicians from both sides of the political divide, there were however other things that require quick responses here.

 

For instance, the Minister claimed that ‘There is no such thing as censorship or having to register or blocking out certain websites.’ That is not entirely true. Although there are no registration requirement for bloggers, blocking out of certain websites, and overt censorship, there were nonetheless attempts by the state to scare bloggers and discourage them from being critical of the government, which is a form of indirect censorship. This was illustrated by the experiences of the likes of Jeff Ooi, Raja Petra, Rocky’s Bru and Malaysiakini where laws such as the Sedition Act had been used against them.

 

Another point the Minister made was about the annual licensing under the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA): ‘The annual licences came after Operasi Lalang and it’s related to the (Team A -Team B) fight of Umno in 1987 and how that fight transformed to emerging Malay nationalism and the reaction from the Chinese. Then there was the closure of The Star, Sin Chew and Watan. After that they came up with annual licences.’

 

To be sure, the licensing requirement has been there in the Act prior to the Operasi Lalang. In fact, this licensing provision is an ugly colonial legacy that the ruling Alliance party inherited from the British after Malaya’s independence in 1957. What really happened after that political clampdown in 1987 was that the PPPA was further tightened where the decision of the Minister concerned is not subjected to judicial review and no reasons need to be given by the Minister for the rejection of a publishing permit application, or its revocation.

 

Shabery Cheek also defended the decision of the government to go after the newspapers that disclosed information pertaining to the findings of the Lingam video inquiry prior to the Cabinet’s decision to release the report to the public. He said,

 

I am not talking about protecting the government or those in power but protecting society as a whole. The government too has its own secrets for military and security reasons. The law is still the law. Freedom of expression doesn’t mean that you can do whatever you want. As far as the police report against newspaper is concerned, our worry is where the leak is coming from. Is it from investigative reporting, a leak from the government printer. We want to ensure that when there is sensitive information like military and security, it’s not going to fall (to the other people’s hands).  

 

I believe the inquiry report has nothing to do with military or security issues. So why, I wonder aloud, this drastic measure against the newspapers concerned? And, another thing that was alluded to here by the Information Minister and which needs our re-affirmation: nobody in his or her right mind has demanded an absolute freedom of expression (if at all possible) in Malaysia. What most civil society groups and journalists want is freedom of expression with responsibility, and by extension, a free and responsible press.

 

Finally, and this may not necessarily be directly related to what was said in the interview, there has been talk that the mainstream newspapers of late have been receptive to citizens’ demands for ethical and professional journalism and to discerning tastes of the post-March 8 readers, and thus there appear to be some space for alternative or dissenting voices in the newspapers.

 

But before we quickly jump for joy, it’s worth wondering whether this so-called opening up has also got to do with the possibility of certain dailies being caught, or consciously playing a role, in factional fighting within the ruling coalition where the contenders bring their battles into the realm of journalism and compete for editorial space in the newspapers with which they have close ties. If this is the case (of journalistic space partly prised open by factional fighting), then we certainly have a long way to go before we have true press freedom.

 

Additionally, while ordinary Malaysians may appreciate the gestures shown by Shabery Cheek as regards his favourable notion of a freer press, it must be said here that press freedom is often gained not by the rakyat hoping for a benign state to deliver it on a silver platter, but through years of struggle by all concerned parties (and these include newspaper editors, apart from committed journalists and civil society groups). Press freedom, if we need reminding, has to be fought for on all fronts through, of course, non-violent means.

 

Of ‘trivial pursuit’ in Selangor

Former Menteri Besar of Selangor and now the state’s opposition leader, Dr Mohamad Khir Toyo, had expressed unhappiness over what he perceived to be the spending of too much time on ‘trivial matters’ by the Pakatan Rakyat government in the state. Instead, he added, the government should move on and start work to improve things in Selangor. See here.

 

True, the new government, or any government for that matter, has the utmost responsibility to get on with work that is aimed at improving the welfare of the people as a whole. But problems of the past can impede a smooth implementation of current development projects, and thus these have to be investigated and resolved as swiftly as possible. It’s quite conceivable that the time taken to investigate certain problems can be longer depending on the complexity of the problems at hand.

 

But what are these ‘trivial matters’, if I may humbly ask, doc? Could it be that one of these matters involved the Wives of Selangor Assemblymen and MPs Welfare and Charity Organisation (Balkis)? I beg to differ: surely a huge sum of money that is associated with Balkis cannot be termed as ‘trivial’.

 

Neither could we term ‘trivial’ an issue of RM29mil spent in two months by assemblymen of the previous administration. And, mind you, we haven’t even gone to places like Klang for the continuing ‘trivial pursuit’.

 

Or could it be a case of the new opposition leader not used to the idea of his past actions and policies being heavily scrutinised and of him being made accountable for? Now, that’s not being trivial, is it?

  

Besides, apart from putting a spotlight on the previous administration, this ‘trivial pursuit’ also serves as a useful reminder to the present Pakatan government that the rakyat also expect it to be transparent and accountable as well in its running of the Selangor state.