Friday, July 2, 2010

Will banning S' Keadilan stop Felda settlers from blaming Najib?

Wong Choon Mei, Malaysia Chronicle

The Home Ministry has refused to renew the publishing permit for PKR newspaper Suara Keadilan, in a move critics say underscored Umno paranoia about Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim and his Pakatan Rakyat coalition, which has been working hard to win the hearts and minds of the rural Malay electorate.

“This is obviously an excuse to mask their real motive – to deny Pakatan and PKR in particular a platform to reach the Malay constituents. We denounce the action and will appeal the decision,” PKR Youth Chief Shamsul Iskandar Akin told Malaysia Chronicle.


Questionable assets or solid cash

The brouhaha over the Suara Keadilan publishing and printing permit came about following its recent article entitled Felda Bangkrap. Financial analysts told Malaysia Chronicle the latest ban would not help the government counter eroding confidence in Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose administration has been accused of a slew of corruption and commissioning cases.

This is because neither he nor Felda have provided any details or independent valuations for the assets bought with Felda’s cash. This means that the land settlers could be sitting on a massive pile of overpriced and low-yielding investments instead of solid cash, they said.

“It is no point blaming Suara Keadilan. The government also said it will sue for RM200 million, which obviously is an overblown amount. Firstly, it doesn't credible and comes across as bullying, so investor sympathy won't be with the government on this," a research director at an investment bank told Malaysia Chronicle.

"In fact, it will raise more alarm bells about how deep the rot could be in Felda. Questions about how Najib can let Felda erode its cash levels, did he have any part in any improper activity in Felda will grow even larger now.”

Public disbelief

Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Ahmad Maslan, who is also in charge of the government-controlled land settlement corporation, had objected to the Suara Keadilan article, saying it was wrong and Felda was not bankrupt. Ahmad also threatened to sue the publication and its owners for RM200 million if they did not issue a public apology.

The article was actually a response to to Ahmad’s own statement to questions raised in Parliament about Felda’s financial health. There have been widespread concerns about Felda's massive cash depletion and Ahmad himself confirmed that its reserves plunged RM2.73 billion from RM4.08 billion in 2004 to RM1.35 billion in 2009.

Although, he also pointed that Felda’s assets rose at the same time, his remarks still drew public fire and nationwide accusations of high-level government corruption due to the ruling coalition Umno-BN's long-standing refusal to come clean on failed mega projects.


High-handed

Civil rights groups say the ban also highlights the oppressiveness of the BN coalition, which has ruled Malaysia for 52 years since independence from British colonization in 1957.

The BN's hegemony has been built around race-based policies promulgated by dominant BN partner Umno and its ham-fisted control over all the institutions in the country, including the judiciary, the civil service, the armed forces and the media.

On Friday, the ministry’s Quranic texts and publications controller Zaitun Samad said the decision not to extend Suara Keadlian's permit was due to its unsatisfactory reply over the Felda report.

“The application for renewal of Suara Keadilan publishing permit that expired on June 30, 2010 will only be considered after receiving satisfactory reply from the publisher,” Zaitun said in a statement to the press.

Media organizations operating in Malaysia are required to obtain publishing and printing permits from the Home Ministry for all publications. These are usually extended on an annual basis, giving the government huge clout over editorial direction of the content - especially the political news and analysis.

Media practitioners, who have long fought for the archaic law to be repealed and press freedom to be restored, slammed the ban.

"If there is inaccuracy of fact, it is up to the owners of Felda to sue Suara Keadilan. I fail to see why the Home Ministry is involved. Why should a report on Felda that displeases the Prime Minister's Office be a reason for canceling Suara Keadilan's permit. Where is the logic or justice for such a high-handed move," said a veteran journalist told Malaysia Chronicle.


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