MALAYSIA: 'Oriental Daily' in danger of getting suspended

Government to shut down popular Chinese-language newspaper after its controversial coverage of prisoner abuse

Straits Times
Friday, January 20, 2006

By Leslie Lopez

Kuala Lumpur --- Oriental Daily News, an upstart Chinese-language newspaper with growing appeal, is under fire from the Malaysian government and faces the prospect of a temporary closure.

"The paper has been pushing the envelope on a number of issues over the past few months and there is a compelling case to take action," said a senior government official close to the situation.

He added that the Internal Security Ministry, which monitors national and international media organisations, is currently reviewing the matter and will be submitting its recommendations to the government in the coming weeks.

The official did not rule out the prospect of a temporary closure of the newspaper. But he insisted that any action against it should not be construed as a sign that Kuala Lumpur is moving to clamp down on the media.

"This is an isolated case," he said.

Executives from Oriental Daily, which is owned by Sarawak-based timber magnate Lau Hui Kang, declined to comment for this article.

Oriental Daily, which began publishing exactly two years ago, is the youngest of Malaysia's four main Chinese-language newspapers.

Administration officials say that, over the past eight months, it has been pushing the limits deemed acceptable by the government on matters such as race and the economic rights of the politically dominant Malay community, issues considered to be extremely sensitive in multi-ethnic Malaysia.

The newspaper invited more scrutiny in the past two months over its coverage of a public controversy stemming from the exposure of a video-clip showing a nude woman forced to do ear-squats in a police cell.

Unconfirmed press reports at the time identified the suspect in the video-clip as a Chinese national, but an investigation identified her as an ethnic Malay woman.

In the fallout from the affair, two senior editors of China Press, a Chinese-language daily which first identified the woman as a Chinese national, were forced to resign following pressure from the government.

Oriental Daily sharply criticised the government's intervention, a move which further irritated the administration.

Several analysts believe that there could be a commercial dimension to Oriental Daily's woes.

They note that the paper, with its aggressive reporting and daily nationwide circulation of about 200,000 copies, has been steadily snaring advertising revenue from its established competitors such as Nanyang Siang Pau and China Press, which are both controlled by groups aligned to the Malaysia Chinese Association, the main ethnic Chinese party in the government.

"The business rivalry has only fuelled complaints against the paper, said one editor of a local newspaper. But he noted that a temporary suspension of Oriental Daily could prove to be a boon for the newspaper."

The last time Malaysia moved against the media was when it suspended the English-language daily The Star and the Chinese-language Sin Chew Jit Poh for allegedly stoking racial tensions in October 1987.

The two newspapers were allowed to resume operations six months later. But notoriety boosted circulation and profits.

Today, The Star and Sin Chew Jit Poh rank as Malaysia's most profitable media companies and enjoy commanding positions in their respective market segments.