Reporters Without Borders condemns the daily Utusan Malaysia’s decision on 21 April to fire one of its journalists, Hata Wahari, because he accused it of failing to provide the public with objective news coverage in the run-up to last year’s elections.
“By firing Wahari, Utusan Malaysia’s management has just confirmed the correctness of his criticism,” Reporters Without Borders said. “As president of the National Union Of Journalists Malaysia (NUJ), he did what he was supposed to do when he raised the problem of the Malaysian media’s biased election coverage. As he was not guilty of any professional misconduct, there were no legal grounds for his dismissal.”
Wahari, who had worked for Utusan Malaysia since 1995, was elected NUJ president last September. In that position, he continues to criticize the newspaper’s lack of independence and the fact that many of the country’s media are too close to the government. He recently gave Reporters Without Borders an interview.
Reporters Without Borders: What do you think of Utusan’s reaction? What does it show?
Hata Wahari: I think Utusan did this because its top management got instruction from the leaders of [the ruling] UMNO to fire me. I am the only person who is not afraid to talk about how Utusan has been used by UMNO and the government to wage their propaganda campaign against [the opposition coalition] Pakatan Rakyat. It shows that Utusan will be used again and again as a propaganda tool by UMNO and the government.
If Utusan is too close to the ruling coalition, do you think certain politicians were involved in this decision?
Basically all decisions are taken by UMNO’s leaders. I believe the editor gets direct instructions from the head of UMNO about the news that Utusan should play up. As a journalist with Utusan for 16 years, I know that instructions are given every afternoon. This has been the standing operational procedure between UMNO and Utusan for a long time.
Is this case illustrative of a phenomenon affecting other media in Malaysia as well?
Yes, if the media are owned by the government and UMNO, they will receive instructions from UMNO just as Utusan does.
How can media independence and neutrality be reestablished in Malaysia?
The only way is to repeal the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) and create a media independence council that is answerable directly to parliament.
What other recourse will you have if your appeal is rejected?
I will ask the human resources ministry to refer my case to the industrial court and if it refuses, I will take my case to the high court.
All of Malaysia’s printing presses are required by the 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Act (amended in 2006) to renew their licence every year. The interior ministry has the power to grant, suspend or rescind licences.
The authorities also use the PPPA to ban books and arrest authors or publishers. “Funny Malaysia” and “Perak Darul Kartun,” two cartoon books published by the cartoonist Zunar, were banned last February. Reporters Without Borders responded by distributing them in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta Zunar’s magazine, Gedung Kartun, was censored in October 2009.