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MGG: Goebbels Goebbelled
By M.G.G. Pillai

12/1/2002 4:08 am Sat

The Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamed, is a frustrated man these days. He is what makes Malaysia move, and to make that stick, no mainstream newspaper would dare write what happens, only so the Emperor in Putra Jaya would not be offended. Trying to second guess his thoughts is a chancy business, as several former editors-in-chief of UMNO-controlled newspapers can attest. Often, the Bernama version of an event is printed, if for no reason than to mollify their mea culpas. The options narrow by the day. UMNO and the National Front has to come to terms with the reality that the young Malay, in the universities and out, are alienated from it.

Recently, the newspapers reported that UMNO counterintelligence officials caught eight undergraduates for trespassing. They implied they were opposition spies spying on UMNO's operations room for the Indera Kayangan byelection in Perlis. How they found out all this before it kicked off before nomination day is one mystery that probably would never be solved. An opposition website tells a different story: that they were picked up elsewhere, brought to the National Front operations rooms and accused of skullduggery. Police reports are made. The universities send in disciplinary staff to monitor the role of undergraduates, who are told they have no business at an election campaign. How would they know who they are, assuming that they do their work conscientiously, when they cannot distinguish their own undergraduates in their own campuses?

But all this is to show the Great Man the opposition are composed of rascals who would not even allow the National Front to campaign in a clean byelection. The right to disrupt, in the National Front's view, is limited only to the National Front; all others break the Election rules and regulations.

But is Dr Mahathir satisified? The news item was meant to tell Malaysians that undergraduates must study and if they want to be active in the political campaigning, there is only one political party it can support without the police asking questions. Even if the news report is true, and truth in mainstream reporting is subjective, and published in all seriousness, it backfired. It got the undergraduates even more incensed with the government and it gave the obverse view that UMNO and the National Front faces even more problems with the undergraduates.

In other words, instead of concentrating on an election it has the edge on, it has to go into dangerous territory of university campuses to mollify the undergraduates. That to most UMNO stalwarts is an even more tenuous fate than Daniel's in the lion's den. Worse, when the former editor-in-chief of Utusan Malaysia is transformed as the government's hatchet man to rein in the press, the picture is complete.

So, Dr Mahathir is miffed the story is badly handled. He misses the irony. If in the Prime Minister's view a routine story of opposition skullduggery is wrong, how much credibility can we give other reports in these selfsame newspapers of opposition activities? There is a fine line between propaganda and news reporting. If there is no desire on the part of the newspaper owners for an independent press, there would not be. The government does not want one, and allows it only the unfettered right to praise it. The opposition is ignored, except when it is riven. So, the opposition view of the Indera Kayangan byelection is the DAP's refusal to campaign and the split that it caused within that party.

When you hobble the reporter from covering news as it happens, it becomes how all news would be covered. He would look over his shoulder whenever he writes. Any pretence of fair news reporting is lost if he has to. In Malaysia, that is the norm. When mainstream newspapers insist that all reporters are the Goebbellian representatives of the government in power, the day is not far off when what they write misrepresents even the government's good news. When the main UMNO-run mainstream English-language newspaper has an editor-in-chief who fancies himself Dr Mahathir's Dr Goebbels, even the good doctor must worry about his press coverage. As he no doubt does.

M.G.G. Pillai