“The important thing for the Malaysian government is to make an example out of you. To create fear. You say anything bad about me, you will be arrested first.”
Nabihah Hamid was being wheeled into a hospital delivery room when she got an email informing her she had lost her job. Five minutes later, new-born Nur Zahra Humaira was crying in the arms of her mother, who had no idea how she was going to support her child.
Nabihah was one of 59 journalists at The Malaysian Insider (TMI), an independent news portal in Malaysia, let go when the website was shut down. It came less than one month after the country’s media regulator Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission blocked access to the news site.TMI’s closure on 14 March 2016 came amid a government clampdown on the independent media covering the financial scandal involving the national wealth fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), which have raised corruption allegations against Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak, his family and his inner circle. Prime Minister Najib has denied any wrongdoing.
The portal – one of only a few independent media outlets within a highly government-controlled Malaysian press – has been embattled for years, with its journalists facing lawsuits from government and opposition politicians. Its closure signified a huge blow to press freedom in the country, which up until then was burgeoning due to growing discontent among Malaysians against the Barisan Nasional Party.
For 30-year-old Nabihah – a former anchor from a large cable-news network – the closure meant her journalism career, and the livelihood of her daughter and herself, was in jeopardy.
“I knew the risks of going from an established channel to TMI, which was not so stable. But in TV we had to be careful not to spark anger from the government. I wanted to find news that was more legitimate, that wasn’t blocked by censorship.”
“When the block happened, our publisher retrenched about 20 staff, but even then I still hoped TMI would stand. When it closed, I was a bit afraid. You just imagine… how was I going to care for my baby?”
Malaysia’s muzzled media
In the two years since the 1MDB scandal broke, the Najib administration has suspended the publication of two newspapers and blocked access to online media platforms Medium.com, Asia Sentinel and Sarawak Report (SR). Malaysia also issued a warrant for the arrest of London-based SR editor, Clare-Rewcastle Brown, who published leaked documents on the 1MDB investigation. Additionally, two Australian journalists were arrested and deported in March 2016 when they tried to ask Prime Minister Najib a question on the investigation at a public event.
Malaysia is one of the lowest ranked countries for press freedom in the world, coming in at 146 out of 180 countries on the 2016 World Press Freedom Index, with Reporters Without Borders describing the ongoing clampdown as a “personal war against independent media”.
But the media’s dire straits did not come out of nowhere, said Radzi Razak, a Malaysian journalist and leader of press freedom advocacy group Gerakan Media Marah, or Angry Media Movement. He explained that the mainstream press have had their capabilities weakened for decades through political ownership and wide-ranging laws that disabled them from publishing anything negative about the ruling government.
The laws behind Malaysia’s mediaMalaysian newspapers are required to annually renew their operating license with the government under the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA), which also gives authorities the power to deny or revoke the publication license of any newspaper. The Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) gives the Communications and Multimedia Minister a large measure of discretionary authority over broadcast licenses. Amendments to the CMA, which activists fear will be a form of the PPPA for the internet, are expected to be tabled in parliament in October 2016.
But among all the laws seen as restrictive to press freedom, activists say the government’s use of the Sedition Act – a law introduced by Malaysia’s British colonists in 1948– has been the worst. The law enables police to arrest any individual accused of making “seditious remarks”, a term which Radzi said was vague and has mostly been used to muffle voices critical of the government and the journalists who publish them.
Six journalists, including four from TMI, have been arrested under the Sedition Act since 2014. Radzi told the IPF:
“All of this just creates a culture of fear among journalists in the portals, and also journalism students and existing reporters who may not want to risk their lives to work with us.”
Last year, as many as 91 people – including opposition politicians, lawyers and activists – were arrested, investigated or brought to court under the Sedition Act. That number, according to Amnesty International Southeast Asia Deputy Campaigns Director Josef Benedict, was five times as many as during the law’s first 50 years in existence. Arrests under the Sedition Act began to spike shortly after Najib’s coalition narrowly won the country’s general election again in 2013.
Radzi said that many journalists had begun to self-censor their work for fear of being hauled up.
“There have been cases where journalists have their lives threatened, their family’s lives. A few months ago, one journalist had to be taken away from a state during the state election because of threats against her. They had to change their numbers after receiving threats. That is something we face every day.”
Silenced for seditionArguably the Sedition Act’s biggest critic and victim is Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, or Zunar, a political cartoonist who made a name for himself with comics criticising of the Malaysian government. But his outspoken attitude has also made him a target.
Zunar is facing a 43-year jail sentence after being charged nine times for sedition for tweets and caricatures critical of the Najib government.
Celebrated overseas as 2016’s Cartooning for Peace prize winner, life back home is anything but smooth-sailing for the 54-year-old who says he has had his office raided, his employees arrested, publishers threatened and his books banned by the government.
Last year, Zunar spent three days in a police cell for posting an allegedly offensive picture of Najib on social media. His work is mostly self-published now after being shunned by most local printing houses. Those who dare publish his work usually ask him to black out their names in his books.
“The important thing for the government is to make an example out of you,” said Zunar. “To create fear. You say anything bad about me, you will be arrested first.
“The Sedition Act has such a wide interpretation that it gives police the power to go and arrest you for anything. That is good enough to make people afraid of saying anything.”
But that hasn’t stopped Zunar from going after the “big fish” in his work, where he often features Najib, his wife Rosmah Mansor and the police in sarcastic portrayals of corruption allegations. With a print ban on his work, he has created a massive following online for his comics on Facebook and Twitter.
“For me talent is not a gift, but a responsibility. In a country like Malaysia when we are facing a moral crisis, you have to make a stand. And I have to do this.”
No public support
Zunar is challenging his sedition charges in court and it will be a symbolic precedent for freedom of expression and press freedom in the country should he be acquitted. But that would only be a small victory for the cartoonist who, despite having popular support online, has not been able to find financial stability from fans to keep up his work.
Coupled with the target on his back from authorities, Zunar said being one of the few taking a stand against the government has put a strain on him financially and personally.
“I have 120,000 followers on my Facebook but when I sell my books, I can only get less than 2% to buy online. In Malaysia, the support only comes when everyone is talking about an issue, then they will all come, but after that.. quiet. Nobody cares after that.”
Radzi agreed. In 2015, he organised a protest rally after TMI’s parent company, The Edge, had its license suspended for three months after publishing articles on the 1MDB investigation. Mostly journalists attended the rally, with little show of support from members of the public.
“I think the problem [with] Malaysians at large [is that] they sometimes easily dismiss things that don’t directly affect them.”
He continued: “Some said they only wanted to support online or anonymously because they were afraid of getting called or beaten up or negatively affected by the government. It’s understandable. Since you would be going against someone in power who is known to use those powers against you.”
Lack of press freedom: Media at a crossroads
Nabihah remained unemployed for nearly half a year, ghost-writing and selling merchandise online to stay afloat after TMI shuttered its doors. She now works as an entertainment reporter for a mainstream media-linked website.
“I used to write about corruption and now I am writing about an actress’ breasts.”
Despite not being able to write what she truly wants, Nabihah said she will stay with this job for her daughter’s sake, rather than return to independent journalism and risk another TMI experience.
“I still hope one day TMI, or a website like it, will come back. But I have a baby now. I need a secure job, I have no choice. You can talk about press freedom, but I have bills to pay, so how am I going to do that and find an income?”
With the current oppressive climate, Nabihah believes that making a living as an independent journalist is virtually impossible in Malaysia.
“I think media freedom will die here.”
Zunar agreed with her, but said it was a ship he was willing to go down with.
“People ask me why do I choose this subject and not normal cartoons. If you do that you can sell, you will get your book distributed, no more ban, no more arrest. Financially you can settle your own problem as a cartoonist, but you won’t settle the nation’s problems.
“This is not about me, this about Malaysia and the future of younger political cartoonists in Malaysia.”
Regardless of the lack of press freedom, Radzi said the most important thing was for its practitioners to continue expressing solidarity for each other as they navigate the politics of the day.
“If the same people are still in power and continue to use their power to defend themselves, then we won’t be able to make things better. We just have to fight with solidarity and make sure we are still relevant.”