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AFR: Malaysian press clampdown [The Sun]
By Bruce Cheesman
16/1/2002 2:40 am Wed
Jan 16, 2002
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.
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
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
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
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
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
Meanwhile MTUC Sec Gen, Rajasegaran, who was also present at
the vigil said, "they (the Sun's management) don't seem to know the
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
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