A budding revival of more objective and balanced news coverage in the early 2000s, most noticeably in the New Straits Times, was thwarted after a political firestorm erupted when controversial Danish cartoons about Prophet Muhammad were published in several newspapers and clips aired, albeit briefly, on television stations.
A Wikileaked US diplomatic cable containing an assessment by the embassy’s political officer is in line with prevailing public opinion that the new government of Abdullah Badawi, who took office in 2003, was more receptive to a freer press and more relaxed about critical media coverage than the government of Mahathir Mohamad.
The New Straits Times became more aggressive in its news coverage, rocking the establishment boat by challenging billion-ringgit projects and other sacred cows of the Mahathir era. The paper was led at the time by Abdullah’s ally Kalimullah Hassan, with input from Abdullah’s son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin. The pair, and NST editor Brendan Pereira, appointed by Kali, were subject to a vicious whispering campaign and met resistance from diehard pro-establishment figures within the press — much of it directed by allies of Mahathir who saw many of his precious projects being upended.
The cartoon controversy allowed Zainuddin Maidin, a longtime Mahathir ally and a hardline information minister who defended restrictive press laws, to lead a campaign against the reformists. Although the NST apologised — perhaps unnecessarily — the damage had been done, and not just by Mahathirists, but also by hardline Pas and PKR supporters who continued to fan the flames for immediate political gains. Press freedom took a back seat in the face of the conservative racial and religious backlash. A campaign to repeal the Printing Presses & Publications Act, organised by journalists themselves, unusually, was another casualty.
What the US Embassy political officer, Thomas Daughton, wrote at the time:
The cartoon controversy has played out in the larger context of a slow relaxation of press controls that began after Abdullah Badawi took office in late 2003. In order to build a general air of believability and be commercially competitive — both with each other and with the Internet — the government-controlled media have attempted to provide increasingly objective and complete reporting on national stories.
The public demand for higher quality news reporting has become increasingly risky for government-controlled media organizations to satisfy, however, since highly sensitive racial and religious issues typically provide the subtext for the most provocative and best-selling stories. The cartoon controversy prompted Prime Minister Abdullah to wield one of the government’s most potent legal weapons for controlling the media in order to signal that boundaries still exist on press freedom when it comes to racial and religious issues.
For the near future, we expect news editors to respond by restricting their coverage of such issues to news that’s “print to fit” within the GOM’s slowly evolving notions of acceptability.