Thursday December 11, 2003

MALAYSIA: Editor pays for his views

By Mark Baker

Abdullah Ahmad was a big fish in a small, stagnant pond: a feisty and provocative journalist in a parochial culture of control and compliance.
In two years as editor-in-chief of Kuala Lumpur's New Straits Times newspaper - arguably South-East Asia's most sycophantic daily - his columns were often a fresh breath in an environment filled with hot air.
That was until last month when, in one of his first acts as Malaysia's new Prime Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi endorsed the sacking of his scribbling namesake.
While the dismissal of editors might draw passing attention in the West, the firing of this one, at this time, has been big news in Malaysia, opening a rare window on the machinations of the ruling elite.
The New Straits Times is controlled by the ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation, and during the 22-year reign of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad it became an increasingly slavish mouthpiece for the Government and its leader.
The pretence of the paper's independence was dispelled - and with it early suggestions that Abdullah Badawi would be a much softer cop than his predecessor - when Abdullah Ahmad was sacked within 24 hours of publishing a strident critique on Saudi Arabia headlined "Freeing the Prophet's Land".
The article urged reform of the Saudi regime and accused it of complicity - "conscious or otherwise" - in the September 11 terrorist attacks. "No matter how much the kingdom tried to wriggle out of it, there was no escaping the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis," he wrote.
An earlier article also cut close to the bone: "Most moneyed Arabs were legendaryily Janus-faced - high-rolling in their second or third or holiday homes and hotel penthouses in the West, then switching to their flowing fundamentalist robes back home."
The Saudis were furious. They lodged a formal diplomatic protest - suspected of including a demand for Mr Abdullah's scalp and signalled that a bid to raise the number of Malaysians permitted to visit Mecca for the haj would be rejected.
In affirming the dismissal, ordered by the UMNO executive committee, Prime Minister Abdullah said Malaysia, as the chairman of the Organisation of Islamic Conference, could not afford to upset powerful Muslim brothers. But he insisted the move "had nothing to do with personal or internal politics".
Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar immediately contradicted that line when he said the Saudis understood the articles were the writer's personal views and did not reflect government policy.
Mr Syed Hamid then added absurdity to injury by claiming that local newspapers were "fairly independent" and that editors were not told what they could and couldn't write.

The above article appeared in The Age of Saturday, December 6, 2003.


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