Democracy and freedom of expression in Malaysia are further threatened following the suspension of two main opposition newspapers on Monday. Harakah, the official voice of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), and Suara Keadilan, published by the Anwar Ibrahim-led Parti Keadilan Rakyat (The People's Justice Party), were told to stop publication for three months with immediate effect.
It is not difficult to relate this latest action - feared by some to be the beginning of a media crackdown - to recent political developments in the country. Three important by-elections - one parliamentary and two state assembly seats - are to take place in the next two weeks. With the controversial Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak expected to take over from PM Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in a matter of days, winning the by-elections is crucial for the scandal-packed PM-in-waiting to assert his power and revive the authority and reputation of the ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).
Another blow to the independent media came on Tuesday when six internet media organisations were barred from covering UMNO's annual general assembly now in progress. These include The Malaysian Insider, Merdeka Online and Malaysiakini, popular for providing alternative and critical views of the government and corrupt politicians. Being refused press tags to the event, they were told: "The way you report about our party and about our leaders are very sickening."
In Malaysia, the mainstream media serve as the voice of the ruling party and keep a blind eye on the opposition parties, or worse still, instil the people's distrust for them. One example is the accusation against opposition leader Teresa Kok MP of inciting racial hatred and religious insensitivity, which led to her arrest under the Internal Security Act in September last year. The online media become alternative voices for the people and are government watchdogs. Some of their columnists, such as Raja Petra Kamarudin, openly criticise the government and its leaders for their corrupt acts and injustice. This kind of information helps to arouse awareness among the people, opening their eyes to the reality that has escaped them for decades since the country achieved its independence. It is a civil right to be watchful and critical of an elected government. As such, it sounded absurd when the home minister Syed Hamid Albar, giving explanation for the suspension of the media, said they "were punished for inciting hatred against the government".
With the Chinese edition of the Rocket, the official publication of the Democratic Action Party (DAP) yet to be granted a renewal license, freedom of expression and of the media - already ranked 132 out of 173 by the Reporters Without Borders on its worldwide press freedom index - seems to be seriously at risk. That really is sickening.