LAST WEEK, I spent three days each in Brussels and Prague. I was attending a global editor’s roundtable on fake news organised by the Asia-Europe Foundation.
Fake news legislation was the focus of the meeting, and indeed that was originally going to be the thrust of this column.
I gave a brief presentation in which I argued that Malaysia’s Anti-Fake News law, passed earlier this year, was clearly intended to muzzle the media in the wake of the burgeoning 1Malaysia Development Bhd financial scandal involving then prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.
I said that thanks to the unexpected election results, the law failed to accomplish its target but there is a secondary and ongoing legislative battle, which shows how dangerous it can be.
Interestingly, we had journalists from around the world offering different opinions. It should not come as a surprise that journalists from nations where politicians keep a tight leash on the media were arguing for stricter control.
Obviously, Trump’s battle cry of “fake news” has struck a chord with authoritarian leaders around the world, as well as the pressmen who serve them.
I ended my observations by repeating my stance – that the curbing of a free press is much more dangerous than any single item of fake news could ever be.
Then on the final day in Brussels, we attended a journalists’ vigil in support of those who had died for the cause. These included Slovak writer Jan Kuciak, Bulgarian TV host Victoria Marinova and Daphne Caruana Galizia, a reporter from Malta.
All were investigating issues such as tax fraud, misappropriation of funds and money laundering by politicians who likely had ties to organised crime. All paid with their lives.
As if that was not enough, hot on the heels of that protest came chilling revelations about the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
I won’t go into details as you should know them by now. He was brutally slain at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and his murder was widely believed to be under the instructions of the Saudi Crown Prince.
Aside from the viciousness and cruelty of the crime carried out against a member of journalist fraternity, what was equally galling is the brazenness of such an act.
It really hit me how those in power feel authorised to snuff out the lives of others who are mildly critical. Believe me, the pen may be mighty, but it’s no match for the “sword” of 15 skilled thugs lying in wait to assassinate you.
Needless to say, there has been the usual tactic of discrediting Khashoggi for having been part of the establishment, which he was indeed. In fact, he came from an interesting family with the late arms dealer Adnan being his uncle and Dodi Fayed, who died in a car crash with Britain’s Princess Diana, his cousin.
Yes, he was an insider belatedly turned reformer. So what? Does that warrant the way he was treated?
In the last year, the Saudi regime has gained plaudits for allowing women to drive, yet precious little censure for a war in Yemen and the curious abduction of the prime minister of Lebanon.
I really felt for the Khashoggi family when Jamal’s own son Salah was forced to meet the Crown Prince for a photo-op.
Can you imagine what must have been going through his mind? Thankfully Salah, a joint US-Saudi citizen who was blocked from leaving the country, has now been allowed to visit the United States.
This culture of fear is extended against numerous journalists across the globe. From Mexico to Libya, the Central African Republic and India, brave people are dying just for doing their job.
Nearby, Philippines consistently ranks among the 10 most dangerous countries in the world in which to be a journalist, and Myanmar just happily tossed a pair of Reuters journalists in jail for seven years each. Their crime? Reporting on Rohingya massacres.
I won’t deny that there are times I feel ashamed at having to be part of a relatively sedate and orderly press. I have gotten by writing mainly about music and even the political pieces have been either historical or international, allowing me to bring in my left-leaning views without having had to address so many real issues in our country.
I think we have been given a fresh start and would love to one day look back and see 2018 as the turning point for press freedom in Malaysia.
As for the Khashoggi tragedy, I sure hope the International Court of Justice or some other non-partisan authority gets him justice.
Does anyone really trust the goodwill of any of the parties involved in the murder and its exposure?
News editor Martin Vengadesan truly respects those journalists who have put their lives on the line for the truth.
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