Stomping out freedom?

NOVEMBER 7 — Sungei Besar Umno Baru divison chief Jamal Yunos and his red-shirted mob marched for the second time to the doors of Malaysiakini recently to demand its closure.

They accused the news portal of receiving funding from George Soros’ Open Society Foundations (OSF) that brought about the alleged OSF interference in Malaysian politics.

Malaysiakini’s admission that the small OSF grant was only used to produce the “Realiti Sarawak” and “Sekilas Bumi Kenyalang” programmes by its KiniTV video arm (and not to the extent of influencing its editorial independence), however, did not seem to convince Jamal and his boisterous cohort. In fact, Jamal subsequently thought aloud about making at least a part of Malaysiakini’s building runtuh (collapse).

Incidentally, one can’t imagine what would have happened if the converse were to emerge: Bersih 2 and like-minded groups loudly marching to Utusan Malaysia and demanding its closure because of its seeming defamatory inclination. God forbid!

In some ways, we’ve been here before. In 1999, Malaysiakini was also accused by the Mahathir administration of receiving funding from Soros and, so went the argument, the former was a “traitor”, “foreign stooge” and “foreign agent.” Indeed, such a dangerous element in our society only deserves nothing less than a scorn and punishment befitting a traitor!

This occurred when Malaysiakini made its debut in Malaysia’s journalism and political scene just in time for the country’s 1999 general election. The country’s first online news portal competed effectively with the mainstream media in the electoral coverage much to the chagrin of the Mahathir regime that had been so used to having the controlled mainstream media deliver its “gospel truth.”

Consequently, this controversy had adversely affected the advertising revenue of Malaysiakini as most advertisers would normally prefer to stay away from trouble.

Put another way, the journey taken by the news portal since Day One was often riddled with obstacles placed there by the powers-that-be. Given the steadfastness of editor-in-chief Steven Gan and his colleagues in the face of political impediments and even harassment, the challenges posed to them can be very trying at times. In many ways, Malaysiakini has been the thorn in the government’s side.

In this 1999 case and beyond, the fact that Soros is a Jew had been exploited to the hilt by the powers-that-be with the aim of getting traction at least from certain quarters in the Malay-Muslim community in the country. In short, the government went to town with this.

At the time of writing, the police are investigating the news portal for allegedly trying to undermine Parliamentary democracy under Section 124C of the Penal Code.

But the incident at the doors of Malaysiakini is more than just about the unruly Jamal and his merry men trying to create trouble as well as the OSF factor. It’s a transgression against media freedom especially when online publications such as Malaysiakini offer information and opinions that are unlikely to see the light of day in the domesticated mainstream media.

In the case of the Malaysiakini, it not only provides news and views that could rankle the powers-that-be but also a platform for the robust — and at times too stinging — comments of its vocal readers, i.e. ordinary Malaysians and even cybertroopers. On top of that, the news portal has also grown from being merely textual to visual, knowing full well that social media-savvy younger generation is receptive to video clips it produces in the English language as well as Malay and Mandarin.

And like many other Malaysian journalists worth their salt, journalists at Malaysiakini strive to bring us news and views of public interest, importance and concern. And surely this determination to practise responsible journalism is more than just having a fancy for becoming ”martyrs” especially in the face of violent threats, as a few would have us believe.

But more importantly, our attempt at understanding this incident involving the red-shirted mob would be incomplete if we don’t locate it in its larger social context.

Malaysiakini as well as other news portals are increasingly in the spotlight what with their coverage of various issues including the economic downturn, growing ethnic bigotry and religious conservatism etc.

In fact, civil society as a whole is abuzz with activities consonant with democratic practices but is perceived by the powers-that-be to be a collective assault on the Umno Baru-BN political hegemony.

This partly explains why the strident call from the state actors and groups of similar ilk for serious investigations on not only Malaysiakini but also other civil society organisations (CSOs) that were said to have been mentioned by hacktivists DC Leaks of receiving funds from the OSF, i.e. Bersih, Bar Council, C4 Malaysia, Empower, Islamic Renaissance Front, Merdeka Center, Penang Institute, Suaram, Citizen Journalists Malaysia Sabah and the Committee for Free Elections.

As if to add to the seriousness of the call to investigate these CSOs, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Paul Low waded into the controversy by suggesting that “political” CSOs should be banned from receiving foreign funding. It is sheer hogwash to divide these organisations into “political” and “non-political” as almost all actions taken by actors in public domain are political. This suggestion is also a throwback to the Mahathir era.

Any attempt, especially of the undemocratic variety, to further constrain our democratic space and media freedom — with Malaysiakini made to be an example for other media particularly news portals — must be opposed. At the same time, we should also be aware of endeavours to create a diversion — out of an issue such as the above — away from that unmistakable elephant in the room.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.