Last edited: January 01, 2005

Newspapers Caught in Dilemma Over Anwar Coverage

Inter Press Service, September 14, 2004

By Anil Netto

PENANG, Malaysia—The Malaysian media seems to be caught in a dilemma when it comes to giving coverage to just-released former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim.

Six years after adhering closely to a media blackout imposed by the government in September 1998, soon after then Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad sacked Anwar and had him arrested on charges of corruption and sodomy, local newspaper editors are still hesitant to give the pro-democracy leader prominence in their pages despite his release being a major international news item.

Before the historic Federal Court decision was made to free Anwar on Sept 2, the mainstream media had largely sidelined him in a bid to marginalise the charismatic politician from his supporters.

And because Anwar received little mainstream media coverage, many—including newspaper editors and journalists themselves—mistakenly concluded that the ‘Anwar factor’ was no longer relevant in Malaysian politics and that the public had lost interest in him. The international media, to some extent, took their cue from the local media coverage.

“So when Anwar was freed, the major newspapers were caught flatfooted,” said an entry in the ‘Malaysian Media Monitors Diary’, a blog managed by Charter 2000-Aliran—a press freedom advocacy group. “Essentially, they (the papers) had to choose between their own line—that Anwar was no longer relevant—and the reality that vast sections of the Malaysian public were intensely interested in what happened to him.”

A blog is an on-line web-zine or diary usually with facilities for reader’s comments and discussion threads

In the event, local papers chose to highlight Anwar’s release from jail but deftly pointed to the release as evidence of judicial independence in Malaysia. The reporting—though short of a detailed coverage—did not hurt newspaper sales either as copies and free special editions were quickly snapped up.

Journalists who had previously been running down Anwar in their reports, when he was incarcerated, were now scrambling to get their “exclusive interviews” with him and to talk with his family members.

The unexpected news coverage of Anwar sparked hopes of a fresh dawn for press freedom in the country.

“Anwar Ibrahim is free. So is the Malaysian press,” enthused columnist Josh Hong, writing in the popular independent web portal ‘Malaysiakini’. “I mean, the dailies that have plagued the Malaysian public with official news and government propagandistic writings, masqueraded as commentaries, are now free to mention the name Anwar Ibrahim and, more importantly, carry his images.”

In the two days that followed, the crowds that thronged Anwar’s residence in Kuala Lumpur showed no sign of abating. When he left for Munich last Saturday night, to seek medical treatment for spinal injuries made worse when he was in jail, some 5,000- 10,000 pro-democracy chanting supporters brought large sections of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport to a standstill.

But with his departure for surgery in Germany, the coverage on Anwar evaporated.

Media analyst Mustafa Kamal Anuar sees Anwar’s recapturing of the popular imagination as one of the factors that contributed to a toning down of coverage.

“Perhaps there is a feeling among the media that if they still carry on with the same intensity of coverage, it would somehow sustain the momentum of the euphoria over Anwar’s release, Mustafa told IPS.

Initially, observed Mustafa, the media had no way of avoiding news of Anwar’s release, as many Malaysians were anxious to find out the outcome of his Federal Court appeal.

But according to Mustafa, such coverage came with a certain spin.

“When you look at the way it was covered in the newspapers, it was reported in such a way as to cast a positive light on the administration of (new) Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi,” he pointed out.

As the days passed and the public euphoria continued, Mustafa noted, it must have dawned on the media that they could not go on providing such wide coverage of Anwar, as they were inadvertently thrusting him back into the limelight.

“They were inadvertently rekindling public imagination for pro- democratic reforms or ‘reformasi’ as Anwar had been a rallying point for the movement in the past. This could have caused some degree of nervousness in media circles and the government,” he pointed out.

Anwar’s release from the sodomy conviction once again raised questions about Mahathir’s role in publicly shaming his deputy over those allegations in 1998. Questions, too, have been directed at the local media that diligently toed Mahathir’s line because of warnings from authorities and the fear of closure by the Home Ministry.

Before Anwar’s actual trial began, the normally staid front pages purveyed allegations as truths and blared explicit details—in a heavily Muslim country—of the sex charges against him.

“We were sodomised,” cried the headline of a story about his alleged partners, with most of the dailies either ignoring or ridiculing Anwar’s denials.

The group editor-in-chief of the pro-establishment ‘New Straits Times’, Kalimullah Hassan, was quick to rally to Mahathir’s defence. In his regular column, he took a swipe at a foreign wire service writer’s suggestion that Anwar’s release marked “the end of the Mahathir era.”

Reminding readers that the court had cleared Anwar of the sodomy conviction but not the old corruption allegations, Kalimullah wrote in his column on Sept 12: “There is no merit in revisiting the last six years because it is still an emotive and debatable issue. The courts have freed Anwar but the same judges maintain that he engaged in homosexual activities—the reason Dr. Mahathir gave for sacking him as being unfit to lead the country.”

Kalimullah conceded that Anwar’s supporters and friends did not believe the sodomy accusation at all and maintain that he was framed. But the editor was nonetheless effusive in his praise for Mahathir: “Dr Mahathir is just Dr Mahathir to the majority of Malaysians—a good leader, a proud nationalist, an ardent patriot and a statesman. This is how history will remember him.”

When news broke of Anwar’s successful surgery in Germany, ‘The Star’, Malaysia’s top selling English daily, had little to say about the changing political landscape. Instead, it carried a story with pictures on both its front and back pages, announcing Vijay Singh usurping Tiger Woods as the world’s top golf player.

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