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AFR: Malaysian press clampdown [The Sun]
By Bruce Cheesman

16/1/2002 2:40 am Wed

Jan 16, 2002

Malaysian press clampdown

Bruce Cheesman in Kuala Lumpur

The mood at Malaysia's English-language newspaper The Sun resembles that in a morgue, with more than 40 of the 80 desks in the editorial department empty.

Outside the Petaling Jaya headquarters of The Sun the mood is equally as gloomy, with candlelight vigils being held every night since Friday, when 42 journalists were summarily sacked.

The editorial staff of The Sun are paying the price for taking a much tougher line on news coverage than its two, much larger English-language rivals, The Star and the New Straits Times.

The main loser in the latest battle by the Government to keep control over the headlines is the reader in Malaysia, which is credited with having the dullest English-language press in South-East Asia, with even Singapore being more entertaining.

Sacked staff on the picket lines are unrepentant about a so-called front-page exclusive on Christmas Day that outlined an alleged plot to kill the country's leaders, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his deputy, Mr Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

After earlier laughing at the story, Dr Mahathir accused the paper of damaging Malaysia's investment reputation when the report was picked up by international wire agencies. Within 24 hours the paper, owned by Mr Vincent Tan, a Chinese tycoon with close ties to the Government coalition, ordered a front-page retraction. The paper's two top editors resigned and three reporters were suspended. Bonuses were cancelled and half the editorial staff were dismissed within two weeks of the scoop.

Editor Mr Ng, questioned by police for more than three hours, has consistently refused to retract the story, saying that several top Government officials had been consulted before publication.

Retractions by Malaysian newspapers, where the press is kept in line by insidious self-censorship rather than outright curbs, are almost an everyday occurrence, but the sackings sent shock waves through the industry.

Media watchdogs see them as a clear warning to other newspapers not to step out of line. Charter 2000, a group monitoring press freedom, said in a statement: "The sackings at The Sun had sealed the fate of mainstream media freedom by showing that even remotely independent journalists in popular media would not be tolerated."

The newspaper's union has received pledges of support from media activists around the world in its fight to get the 42 journalists reinstated. Malaysia's Human Resources Department is probing claims of unfair dismissal.

The journalists are considered to be victims of increasing concern by the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the Government's main coalition party, about the paper's strong editorial line and the economic downturn.


Vigil continues, minister makes appearance

Ahmad Yusof and Abdul Majid

PETALING JAYA, Jan 15 (Hrkh) - Around 50 people were present at a candlelight vigil held outside The Sun Corporation late Monday, to protest the sacking of 40 of The Sun journalists.

The crowd, consisting of mostly ex-staff and their supporters began gathering at around 8pm. At the same time, a small fire was lighted and pot of rice was allowed to cook to celebrate the Indian festival of Ponggal.

A white Volvo which left the office gates was jeered upon and shouts were overheard saying "Frankie, Frankie". Frankie Tay Thiam Siew is the new Executive Director of the Sun Media Corporation.

Several staff who left The Sun building at around 8pm did not or were too afraid to acknowledge the presence of their colleagues outside the building.

Sacked Sun Union Sec-Gen, P Vijian was asked whether the management followed the last in first out concept (LIFO) and he said "I don't think so, if that's the case I wouldn't be out, because most of the seniors and pioneers have been thrown off."

"They have crippled the union," he continued. "The remaining staff had elected new office-bearers to replace those sacked."

He also said that the sacked journalists are not allowed to enter the Sun's premises. "Everything is done very haphazardly," he said.

When asked what the union planned to do next, he said, "We are constantly seeking legal advice on what to do and besides that the NUJ is backing us up."

He said previously, the union-management relationship has been good. "Little glitches here and there, we always solve it on the table and discuss it all."

"But not this particular issue, not this particular time. Probably because of the two people who came in, V K Lingam and Frankie Tay..", he added.

"It is pretty strange, everything was OK then. On Nov 30 we got our bonus letters saying that we'll get our bonuses. They even agreed to pay our 1998 bonus this year, in staggered payments. But suddenly after the 25th Dec everything contracted, they had financial difficulties. You just can't understand it, you can't link it," he said.

"The bonus issue is not in our retrenchment letter. That also is a bit of a puzzle," said Vijian.

"If you want to downsize, restructuring, that's fair.. but they are not following regulations," he pointed out.

The two journalists who were suspended for publishing details of an alleged assassination plot on Christmas day recently were not among those sacked. "Their position are as it is [suspended]," Vijian explained.

Asked whether he will go back to The Sun given the chance, he said, "that's a difficult question to answer, after all the things that has happened."

Meanwhile MTUC Sec Gen, Rajasegaran, who was also present at the vigil said, "they (the Sun's management) don't seem to know the law."

On the issue of income tax clearance and the EA forms, he advised the former staff to delay getting the relevant documents from the management as, "I am worried you'll be asked to sign a letter of indemnity."

His suggestion to any ex-journalists that were planning to get their clearance done to be patient and wait a while since the journalists have not been paid for the last two weeks, "why not wait for another two weeks," he reasoned.

Deputy Minister for Housing and Local Government, Datuk M Kayveas, after a two hour meeting with co-owner and lawyer, V K Lingam, said, the only thing he can assure the ex-staff was that "all benefits will be given."

"I can't ask go there and ask them 'please reemploy all those people that you have retrenched," he said when asked.

"Some assurance, but not full assurance have been given that they will try [bring things back to normal]," he added.

The union will be holding a meeting later today to discuss the whole issue.