The police have launched a probe on malaysiakini. It’s not the first time, nor will it be the last.
Are we surprised? No. After all, we went into journalism with our eyes wide open. We learnt to accept, a long time ago, that our job comes with a number of hazards. This is one of them.
Indeed, the police had lodged a report against us previously. In 2001, the Selangor police chief filed a report against malaysiakini for a news story about the opposition questioning the official death toll for the Kampung Medan racial clashes. We have not heard from him since.
There were another three police reports by other parties. The most serious was the one in 2003 by Umno Youth over the publication of a ‘Letter to the Editor’ which lampooned the movement for being racist. This resulted in a police raid on malaysiakini during which 19 of our computers were carted away.
We strenuously defended ourselves against all these reports. We believed we did no wrong and were prepared to fight the charges in court. But as to our story on the pepper spray attack which led to last week’s police report, it is clear we had unwittingly made a mistake.
Here is what we know about the Kota Bahru incident. This may not be the definitive version. But it will help provide some context as to why our journalist on the ground believed that the attack could have involved the police.
On the morning of July 28, among the crowd of 1,000 at the Kota Bahru airport to greet former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad were seven men. They stood out like a sore thumb - they had crew cuts, came in four black cars and were clad in dark jackets and pants. They generally acted like they were from a uniformed unit but in mufti.
It later turned out that they were not policemen but army personnel from a nearby camp who were moonlighting as bodyguards. As to why they were doing freelance work while on active duty, that’s another story.
It is now established that there were two pro-Mahathir factions - one led by Ibrahim Ali and the other by Nik Sapeia Nik Yusoff - vying to chauffeur the ex-PM to his hotel in town. And when Mahathir was about to get into a four-wheel-drive belonging to Ibrahim, rival leader Nik Sapeia allegedly attacked him with pepper spray.
The spray was not your garden-variety type from the local hardware store. The strong burst of gas affected not just Ibrahim - who was the target of the attack - but also Mahathir and those nearby, including our reporter who was three metres away from the alleged assailant.
During the pandemonium, Mahathir was quickly and quite professionally whisked away by, among others, the men in black - apparently hired by Nik Sapeia - in one of their cars.
Our reporter, still teary-eyed and coughing from the pepper spray attack, immediately called the malaysiakini office in Kuala Lumpur and filed an eyewitness account of the incident.
The six-paragraph newsflash - headlined ‘Commotion in KB, Dr M whisked away’ - which included a sentence suggesting the pepper spray incident could have involved the police, was uploaded minutes after the event. We also told readers that there would be an updated version shortly.
Many in the crowd at Kota Bahru, our reporter included, initially believed that Mahathir had been arrested by the police. When the situation became clearer, and it was confirmed that the police were not involved in the attack, malaysiakini ran a corrected version an hour later.
Let’s be frank, we screwed up. Media organisations - sometimes - do make mistakes. Take for example, last year’s nude squat scandal where just about every mainstream media erroneously reported that the victim was a Chinese national.
What’s important, however, is our readiness to make amends. We immediately owned up to our mistake. We were willing to apologise to the police. However, it appeared they were not interested in our apology. Instead, a probe was launched.
We can only guess as to why they were so quick on the draw in probing this case. Perhaps it’s payback time.
If there is one thing that malaysiakini can truly claim credit for in our six years of existence, it is our role in checking the single most powerful organisation in this country - our police force.
Over the years, we have published countless reports on the unusually high number of custodial deaths, allegations of torture during interrogation, corruption in the force, trigger-happy cops, and on brutal crackdowns on peaceful protestors.
This year alone, malaysiakini broke the story on the embarrassing internal document which was inadvertently posted on the police website. The missive, among others, included a chilling warning from the cops that crime would rise should the independent police watchdog, or IPCMC, be established.
More recently, we extensively covered the police crackdown on a peaceful protest against fuel price hikes, dubbed as Bloody Sunday.
This resulted in Suhakam calling an open inquiry on the incident. The police's top brass will be hauled in to testify at the inquiry. This will be one of few rare moments when our police will have to publicly defend their actions. Expect this to be another dressing down for the force after the bruising Kesas Highway inquiry five years ago.
Thus, it would be an understatement to say the cops don’t like us. The police force is the only other organisation that has slapped a blanket ban on malaysiakini for their press conferences. The other is Umno’s supreme council.
The police argue their reputation had been maligned despite the fact malaysiakini’s newsflash was online for no more than one hour. Perhaps they should ask themselves why their reputation is so fragile that they have to take action against a report which was promptly corrected.
Umno Youth, which made the police report that led to the infamous raid on malaysiakini three years ago, issued a statement last Friday demanding my resignation for the error.
While they think they have the powers to sack editors from the mainstream media, let me remind them of this fact - they are not my bosses and I don't take orders from them.
Indeed, their demand would have more credence had they also asked the police chief to quit for allegedly threatening to let crime rise in their anti-IPCMC campaign. Instead, not a squeak was heard from Umno Youth.
Worse, they backed the cops in their bid to hold the government - and the rakyat - to ransom.