KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 8 — Journalists in Malaysia have been thrust under the unaccustomed glare of the spotlight, grappling with the startling arrest of one of their number in a sedition blitz that has snagged politicians and an academic over the past couple of weeks.
The detention of Malaysiakini journalist Susan Loone drew silent indignation among many in the industry, who saw no call for punitive action against a reporter simply doing her job.
Malaysia, already low on a key gauge of press freedom, could sink further. The World Press Freedom Index 2014, released by global media watchdog, Reporters Sans Frontières, ranked Malaysia at 147th out of a total of 180 nations, tumbling 23 places from 2013.
Loone was detained on September 4 and reportedly questioned for nine hours in connection to police reports lodged against her and Malaysiakini over an article she wrote related to the police’s recent crackdown on the Penang Volunteer Patrol Unit (PPS).
The journalist and news portal are being investigated under Section 4(1)(C) of the Sedition Act over the article, “Disoalsiasat selama 4 jam, dakwa dilayan seperti penjenayah (Interrogated for four hours, treated like a criminal)”, in which she quoted state executive councillor Phee Boon Poh in recounting the latter’s earlier arrest in connection with the PPS.
Despite the outrage, however, an even greater worry looms over the profession with the realisation that the messenger may well end up getting proverbially shot.
While there has not been any clear directive to be more “careful” in writing stories from the higher-ups in news organisations — be it mainstream or alternative — Loone’s arrest reinforces the long-practiced habit of self-censorship in the Malaysian media.
Even foreign media are not taking chances, with one journalist for a foreign publication admitting that they are not touching any story that concerns the royalty — one of the sticking points that landed at least one politician with a sedition rap.
The situation is not helped by a recent challenge by Home Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who called out a reporter from The Sun for misquoting him in a story that had quoted him as calling non-Malays arrogant.
“So if the reporter has the guts, whether he is a male or female, step out and talk to me. If he made a mistake and retracted and apologised, I will forgive him, if not, I will know what to do,” he said in his speech at the Bukit Bendera Umno delegates conference last week.
The National Union of Journalists Peninsular Malaysia (NUJ) did speak out against Loone’s arrest, condemning it as an attempt “to intimidate and interfere with press freedom” and demanded that the police apologise to Loone over the incident.
But this was not the first time a journalist was arrested using a colonial era law in recent years.
Sin Chew Daily reporter Tan Hoon Cheng was briefly detained under the now-defunct Internal Security Act (ISA) in September 2008, over a story regarding racist remarks uttered by former Bukit Bendera Umno division chief Datuk Ahmad Ismail during the Permatang Pauh by-election campaign.
Which leaves a heady question for journalists in Malaysia — can they continue to do their work without fear of the full brunt of the law bearing down on them?