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Pendapat / Opinion

Jaga periuk nasi and press freedom

The days of papers giving a voice to the man in the street are numbered. Anyone who is trying to highlight a wrong, which involves the government, a public figure, celebrity or corporate body is advised to just grin and bear it. He should forget about trying to be socially responsible. He has little chance of getting his message across.

If the story did sneak into the press, the journalist who wrote it would risk his job and perhaps his freedom.
In the worst-case scenario, he could jeopardise the position of his editor, his colleagues and the publication for which he writes. At best, his story will be reworked until it is not recognisable. This is not unique to Malaysia; it has been observed around the world.

The end result is that journalists and editors heavily self-censor their work. They need to safeguard their own interests, or in Malay parlance, “jaga periuk nasi”.

Malaysia has some of the most restrictive media laws anywhere and certain political parties tend to influence newspapers like Utusan Malaysia, Berita Harian, The Star and The New Straits Times. These newspapers are pro-government. Good and credible journalism cannot thrive when journalists are forced to toe the government line. When this happens, the media loses its reach and reputation.

Another threat comes from the corporate ownership of newspapers. In an article in the Asia Sentinel dated Nov 13, 2012, titled “Pro-Beijing tycoons circle Taiwan media”, the Hong Kong media magnate Jimmy Lai, a severe critic of Beijing, may soon lose his media empire to his arch-rival, Tsai Eng-meng, who is very much in the pro-China camp.

Although the controversial media takeover of Lai by Tsai may not directly bother us, the parallels cannot be ignored. Like the article points out: “There are concerns that the moguls wouldn’t hesitate to field their newspapers, magazines and TV stations to steer public opinion to Beijing’s liking on issues concerning China.”

Asia Sentinel also alludes to political interference, meddling by owners of the media, allegations of false reporting, curbing of press freedom and the creation of a climate of fear to prevent people from criticising those in authority. The piece depicts a scenario which is familiar to Malaysians.

Twin horrors

Whilst many Malaysians know about the twin horrors of political parties and private media owners manipulating the publication of news and opinion, many people are not aware about the other threat which many smaller magazines and publications face.

This insidious threat comes from the advertiser. The danger he poses, is by no means less severe.
The businessman who finds that his company’s practices are under scrutiny, because of a report in a newspaper in which he advertises, will be aggrieved.

These advertisers are aware that smaller publications survive on the revenue generated by sponsorship and advertising. A few thousand ringgits may be peanuts to the company, but vital to a small newspaper. The loss of advertising revenue may break the smaller publication.

The effects of this threat are far-reaching; the community depends on the publication for news and future events, people depend on the publication for employment. Often, the people who are directly or indirectly employed in the manufacture and distribution of the magazine or newspaper – the journalist, the printer or the newsagent – are the sole breadwinners in the family.

In Malaysia, people are too timid to expose wrongdoings which concern their community. People rarely hear about the demolition of a building until the structure is reduced to rubble. Kuala Lumpur, Penang and other parts of Malaysia have lost many architectural treasures. Sometimes, an opposition MP will bring the issue up in Parliament, as in the Batu Caves condominium controversy.

Falim House, in Ipoh, the magnificent mansion built in 1929 by miner Foo Nyit Tse, is in peril of being demolished. Foo developed the part of Lahat, which is known as Falim. Falim is in Lahat, between Ipoh and Menglembu.

Very soon, the din of demolition work will drown out the clamour of the conservationists who want to preserve Falim House (main photo). If Falim House should be demolished, it will be a tragic loss for Ipoh.
Last October, the new owners of Falim House were said to be keen to redevelop the plot. When the news broke, conservationists including the Perak Heritage Society started a massive “Save Falim House campaign” in Facebook, to garner support and perhaps move the authorities, to preserve the last of Ipoh’s grand pre-war residences. Their efforts may not be enough to save Falim House.

The future of Falim House is mired in controversy. The vice-president of the Perak Heritage Society, Law Siak Hong, has expressed concern that Falim House would share the fate of Ipoh’s oldest cinema which once stood in Jalan Chamberlain. The Majestic Theatre was pulled down last June without Ipoh council’s permission.

It is a familiar story. People in power pay lip service to the conservation of our architectural and heritage treasures, but pass the buck and will shoulder no responsibility. Whilst they prevaricate, the remainder of our historic buildings and areas are at risk.

When someone tries to highlight a concern to the greater public – be it an injustice, corruption or a controversial issue – politicians, VVIPS, media tycoons and advertisers go out of their way to suppress the story. Speaking the truth is risky business in Malaysia.-Mariam Mokhtar is a FMT columnist.

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