A conversation with Malaysiakini CEO PREMESH CHANDRAN.
Premesh Chandran is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Malaysiakini, an independent online news organisation in Malaysia. Cherian George interviewed him in Bangkok on 2 March 2012.
Malaysia for a long time prided itself as a harmonious multicultural nation, but the mood seems to have changed. Can you tell us more about this context?
Malaysia is a multi-ethnic society. The biggest communities are the Malays, the Chinese, the Indians and large communities of Iban and Kadazan. The peculiar thing about Malaysia is that the ethnic divide is translated into the political process. Each ethnic group seeks representation through a political party. The ruling government is a coalition of these ethnic based-parties. As a result, instead of these communities coming together, you have a kind of stagnation and a lack of a nation-building process, because these political parties rationalise their existence through ethnic representation.
The formula has been that the ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional [led by the Malay party, UMNO], perceives itself as the best deal-maker in this negotiation. However, since the Asian economic crisis of 1997, the departure of Anwar Ibrahim, who was the deputy prime minister, led to a fracture within UMNO and the creation of a multi-ethnic coalition which was led by his wife while he was in jail and is now led by Anwar himself. So now the opposition has morphed into a three-party coalition, with the People’s Justice Party, which is Anwar’s party, being the gel between the ethnic Chinese party DAP and the Islamic party, PAS.
Under economic strains of globalisation and with this new opposition, plus the growth of independent media online, all this led to a very big change in 2008. The ruling party lost five states, and won only 51 percent of the vote. From being a very dominant ruling party, things got very tense for UMNO. UMNO has decided to play the race card and the religious card, to demand that Malays have to unite and support UMNO in order to preserve their hegemony or their superiority within the state.
They portrayed Anwar as a crony of the Chinese and a crony of the West, so the argument is that Malays will lose power if Anwar’s opposition alliance were to come to power. Similarly, to the Chinese, the ruling party has said that if the opposition comes to power, it will be PAS the Islamic party that will be in control. In order to create this fear factor, they have used a lot of hate speech, a lot of language reflecting the ethnic and religious divide. For example, there have been various articles saying that the opposition will make Malaysia a Christian state.
These are articles in the government-controlled newspapers?
Yes, in the UMNO-owned Utusan Malaysia. Very dramatic headlines, with very shallow evidence, claiming that there have been meetings and secret deals being done; saying that we’ll have a Chinese prime minister, that the opposition will do away with Malay rights. They accuse Christian priests of wearing Muslim garb and going to the mosque and preaching in the mosque to Muslims, to convert them to Christianity; they talk about an electronic speaking Bible that Muslims will carry around.
Basically, fear mongering?
Fear mongering. A lot of very devious reporting that Malays and Muslims are going to lose out, and without any shred of evidence. And despite all the protests by Christians and Buddhists and non-Muslims, no action by the state to temper the language being used, or to have some sort of code of ethics or some sort of standards.
Similarly, with regards to Indians, there was a lot of destruction of temples prior to 2008 which raised a lot of tensions and was one reason why the Indians protested in the famous Hindraf rally. There was a recent case where they protested the existence of a temple in Shah Alam, which is a Muslim area. They cut a cow’s head and dragged it to the Selangor state secretariat, complete with the blood dripping.
Cow head protest
Malaysiakini carried a lengthy video showing that incident. Not just Hindus but also anyone with any sympathy for animal rights – even if you are a beef eater – you would have found the video upsetting because it was so gruesome. This raises the question of journalism ethics: should responsible media show such scenes? What was Malaysiakini’s thinking?
People need to see what’s happening. We shouldn’t be covering it up. We could have reported it and not shown the video, but I think we are in the age where seeing is believing, and visual representation does carry an additional message as opposed to just a commentary on the incident. I think that if there are parties that would like to go the length and stir up racial trouble, then people need to know this is happening, and this is what it looks like.
Malaysiakini did come under some criticism and official sanction?
What happened subsequently was that the home minister Hishammudin held a press conference with the instigators, the people who did that incident, and actually defended them. He met the group, he wanted to hear from them why they did it, and after the meeting he had a joint press conference with them. He sat with them and said that he understands why it happened, and that the Muslim community really had serious concerns. He didn’t endorse the cutting of the head per se, but he endorsed their viewpoints in general. He was not critical of the fact that they had actually cut a head and dragged it through the streets. He didn’t disassociate himself from the incident. Shortly after that, apparently somebody had lodged a police report, we don’t know who…
Against Malaysiakini. The [Malaysian Communications and] Multimedia Commission [MCMC] wrote to us asking us to remove two videos: both the video of the cow head and the video of the press conference of the minister. Why remove a video of the minister? He has called a press conference, he is a minister speaking on behalf of the state. Are you asking us to censor the state? It’s very peculiar. They basically didn’t want to show that the state is actually supporting this incident.
They were embarrassed.
They were embarrassed, and wanted to cover it up. It’s bad enough the group did it, and the police just stood around while people did this. And then you had the home minister in a way condoning it.
So what was your response?
We refused. We said both are news events, both wanted news coverage and sought news coverage. In no way did we hide our cameras or did we not declare that we were there to cover the news. These were events done in public. We replied saying that the Act provides for no censorship. We believed had good grounds. So the MCMC had to decide whether to charge us or not under the Act, which they never did. They investigated us, they came to the office, they went through an elaborate process to prove that we indeed shot that video and edited that video, which we had admitted first off – we always admitted that this was our video. We said, look, this is harassment; if you don’t like what we’re doing just charge us, we can go to court. But they never proceeded.
No internet censorship
Were Hindus offended by your decision to post the video?
We never got any complaints from any Hindu organisations or any individual. There was a lot of commentary expressing disgust with the action, but none complaining about us.
So Malaysia’s Hindus by and large understood that you were reporting something in the public interest rather than giving an unnecessary platform to an anti-Hindu act?
That’s right. We also carried statements from Hindu organisations telling Hindus not to react – that this was the action of a small group.
Were you worried that giving this sort of publicity would provoke violence?
I think there were so many challenges to Hindus. This was just the latest act of provocation, not totally out of the blue. And I firmly believe that a lot of people are mature and they will say, why should we go down to their level and respond with violence.
That was the general chatter on the internet. There was nobody who was saying, OK, let’s go and burn down a Muslim house. Even when Hindus have reacted in the past, there was no attempt to show violence. I don’t see much violent tendency so far in the different communities. If at all, it’s been the state instigating acts of violence.
The May 1969 riots are of course deep in Malaysians’ consciousness and always invoked…
But even in that case, who was the one who was instigating the violence? I think in most cases it’s not been the non-Muslims. I think we should ask the question in the reverse. What would happen if a Hindu group cut off a pig’s head and we were there to videotape them throwing the pig’s head into a mosque. Would we show that? I don’t think we would. I think we are very careful about what provokes anger, and I think we would baulk at it. If you are asking us, are we willing to show every single thing? No. I think we are very careful. We do think about what the reaction is going to be.
We have carried reports about pig’s heads being found in mosques, but most times if you look at the commentary, people say that this is done by Special Branch or Muslim extremists to stir up anger. In that way, the comments section really does help. The advantage of the internet is that before anything spins out of control, the icons that represent these groups come out and make good statements – Nik Aziz, the head of PAS, Khairy Jamaluddin [UMNO Youth chief], the Prime Minister. That helps to calm things down.
It sounds like you are less worried about these random extreme acts that you are about this culture of a fear of minorities that Utusan is spreading insidiously, encouraging Muslims to feel they are under siege.
Encouraging Muslims to feel under siege just perpetuates ill-feeling. It still may not convert into Muslims taking up violence, but it may convert into them voting for the government. By and large I’ve not seen a lot of Malaysians preaching violence. And the groups that act like thugs and mobs are very small and very orchestrated and always led by the party.
So these are not spontaneous eruptions of Muslim unhappiness and so on; they are orchestrated. What is the nightmare scenario if the media don’t clean up their act, if this sort of hate speech is encouraged?
For me, you are portraying a situation of tension to justify even further action. So if, for example, BN doesn’t win, they could trigger racial riots. They could take it to the next level. So in a way you are laying the groundwork for that action. If the other side doesn’t react, it’s very difficult to create a clash. But there may be those who decide to be a martyr, an individual who says I’m not going to take this anymore.
Have the calls to mainstream media to be less racialised made any headway?
Besides Utusan Malaysia, the other Malay media are not like that – Sinar Harian, Berita Harian. I think by and large people don’t want to create fears.
And there is nothing that anyone can do about Utusan?
They’ve already called for boycotts and the opposition has banned Utusan from covering their press conferences but beyond that what else can you do?
It just depends on orders from the top?