Two top editors at Malaysia’s leading English daily newspaper have been suspended and other journalists have been questioned by police over a front page published on the first day of Ramadan that was deemed offensive to Muslims.
The government has given The Star a week to explain why it should not be suspended for the content it printed on page one on May 27.
That day, The Star’s front page showed a picture of Muslims in congregational prayers to mark the beginning of the Islamic month Ramadan. The photograph was sandwiched between a banner headline about a terrorism leader at the top of the page and a Samsung phone ad promoting a spa package that showed a bare-shouldered woman being massaged.
Home Ministry Secretary General Alwi Ibrahim said the badly placed headline painted a poor image of Muslims as terrorists.
“The Star newspaper has been given seven days to reply to the show-cause letter as to why actions under the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) 1984, including suspension of publishing permit, should not be taken,” he said in a statement on Monday.
Under the act, the ministry can revoke or suspend a permit for any period it considers desirable.
Malaysian Police Inspector-General Khalid Abu Bakar confirmed that the paper was being investigated on suspicion of inciting religious enmity.
Among those offended by the page was Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party Information Chief Nasruddin Hassan Tantawi, who called it extreme and rude and said it mocked members of Malaysia’s Muslim majority.
The Star responds
The ruckus led to The Star suspending Editor-in-Chief Leanne Goh and Executive Editor Dorairaj Nadason on Tuesday. Details of the suspensions were not released.
As of Wednesday, six employees had been questioned by police regarding Saturday’s publication. Accompanied by company lawyers, five senior editors and a photographer were questioned at police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur.
The 250,000-circulation Star, owned by Malaysian Chinese Association, an ethnic Chinese-led party in Malaysia’s ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN), apologized on Sunday for poor judgment regarding the front page marking the start of Ramadan.
“It has been the practice of The Star to respect the first day of Ramadan every year and to place the picture of Muslims at the first prayers on the front page of the paper. This has been done over the last decade or so,” the newspaper said. “In hindsight, The Star should have been more discerning and sensitive to the feelings of our Muslim readers.”
An assistant news editor who spoke to BenarNews on condition of anonymity said the government was over-reacting, because it was clear that the picture and headline were not related.
“The words ‘see reports on Page 3’ were clearly stated under the ‘Malaysian terrorist leader’ headline on the front page and the picture of Muslims in a prayer also had an accompanying caption – so how can anyone mistake the two articles to be connected?
“Even if bad judgment had been made, the least the government could have done is let the paper take an internal action against those responsible,” the employee told BenarNews.
Journalism groups question government
The Institute of Journalists Malaysia (IoJ) said it was concerned by the government’s action and called for media to be self-regulated.
“The IoJ is of the view that such heavy-handed action is highly disproportionate to the perceived offense, which could arguably boil down to editorial oversight as opposed to any deliberate attempt to sow racial and religious divisions as claimed by critics,” the group said in a statement Wednesday.
“The IoJ repeats its position that the only way forward in promoting a free press is to allow media organizations to decide for themselves how to deal with such issues and to determine their editorial direction, without undue and misplaced pressure from the authorities.”
The front page of the May 27 edition of The Star has drawn complaints from Muslim groups, May 28, 2017. [HadiAzmi/BenarNews]
Other media groups offered similar support for the newspaper.
The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (Wan-Ifra) Media Freedom Committee of Malaysia agreed on the call for journalists to be their own watchdogs.
“This can be done through the formation of a media council, with representatives from the print, online and broadcast media, and which would act as an ombudsman for public complaints against media,” the committee said in a statement.
Another media advocacy group, Gerakan Media Merdeka (Geramm), joined the call for a council, saying it would “prevent third parties using issues to further their own agenda.”
Meanwhile, a youth official representing the main party of the ruling coalition, the United Malays National Organization, the largest component party of BN, said the issue should not be prolonged.
“A stern warning for the editor to be sensitive and careful with future publication is sufficient. After all, it’s Ramadan, the month of forgiveness,” Raja Azraff Raja Azmil told BenarNews.
Hadi Azmi in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this story.