Afraid of the Truth?
So, my boss Nathaniel Tan, finally free from his ordeal, was interviewed by the AlJazeera English news channel last week. He and Malaysiakini founder Steven Gan spoke on media freedom in Malaysia, and the interview now can be found on YouTube:
Although I agree with the thrust of what Nat had to say, I have to say I'm not sure I would have found his pitch compelling or convincing if I was not in possession of the facts I have now.
Later when he asked me what I thought of it, I said it struck me as a bit like propaganda. What he did could basically be described as confidently making assertions with only a modicum of evidence (e.g. his detention, Malaysiakini's frequent closures) to back him up.
Of course, his assertions were mostly (I think) true — it's just that the medium of a 15-minute interview is hardly conducive to conclusively proving that the government is afraid to give people freedom because it is afraid of the truth.
So, for those who were not exactly convinced of this by Nat's interview, I humbly propose to try to do his assertions justice by corroborating them with a few examples. (Of course, I think I'll end up preaching to the choir, considering my audience — as AlJazeera notes in the captions, only 3% of Malaysians have broadband.)
The most blatant and obvious one, I think, is Raja Petra Kamarudin. He has been operating his news site, Malaysia Today, for about three or four years now. The site is probably so famous that it needs no introduction.
The comments on the site have never been of particularly high calibre. If you think they are horrible today, they were much worse when Malaysia Today first opened — especially when registration was not required to comment. Very often, racist and definitely seditious comments have appeared on the site.
The most disturbing thing, though, is how frequently Raja Petra posts exposÚs of conspiracies and goings-on that by right nobody outside a tight-knit circle of establishment insiders should know of — assuming these exposÚs are even true.
Yet, for a surprisingly long time, Raja Petra was not unduly harassed by the establishment for Malaysia Today. He was never taken to task for publishing some of the most incredibly vile comments you can ever see outside, say, a neo-Nazi website, nor was he ever questioned, let alone sued or prosecuted, for the things he claimed about the establishment — claims which are incredibly far-reaching, and often sound more like political thrillers rather than reality.
Indeed, a number of his claims have proven to be true, such as the suggestion that Abdullah Badawi would remarry. (The specifics, though, have often been off by a bit.) The truth is indeed out there, and it seems that at least part of it can be found in the surprising exposÚs of Malaysia Today.
Not too long ago, Raja Petra was questioned by the police for eight or nine hours at the Dang Wangi police station. I was personally there as he went in, and was there to hear his statement when he was released.
Throughout the whole time, it appears that the police had only insisted on questioning him about the comments published on his site — and when prodded, they made the ridiculous claim that comments calling for national unity were seditious and racially divisive.
Afterwards, Raja Petra posted scandalous allegations about Muhammad Taib, who had filed the police report against him, claiming that Taib had secretly married a sultan's daughter, amongst other unsavoury deeds. Taib filed another police report, but all the police ended up doing was questioning Raja Petra's wife for one-and-a-half hours.
If what Raja Petra is saying is so blatantly false, why has he never been taken to task for sedition, or sued for defamation? Why does he remain free to supposedly libel those in the establishment? Our legal process is surely sturdy enough to muzzle those who would defame those in power, yet no substantial legal action is taken against Raja Petra. All we hear are vague threats of using the Internal Security Act on bloggers and internet writers like him — threats that are nonetheless real enough to exert some chilling effect.
Of course, it is dangerous to extrapolate from a single sample, a single incident. But the establishment is proving to be ever more desperate when it comes to silencing websites not to their liking, regardless of the legal founding for their actions.
Look at Nat himself. Detained for four days, just for questioning about something he did not write, where he intentionally excised the most outrageous allegations.
Look at what the Official Secrets Act has been used for. It has been used to silence claims of corruption, such as the one posted by an anonymous commentor on Nat's blog. It has been used to hide toll agreements between the government and private companies. Heck, at one point, even the Air Pollution Index was an official secret.
Is the government afraid of the truth? I'd say it certainly is. Is what Nat, et al up to, attempting to effect change through exercising freedoms we may not even have, worthwhile? I suspect I've found the answer in the impending death of Malaysia if nothing is done, but in any case, that is a question for another time.