One of our two local daily papers, The Sarawak Tribune, reprinted the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad last Saturday. Within the last few days the editor on duty resigned, the Internal Security Department called in the heads of the paper to “show cause”, and yesterday it was announced that the license of the newspaper is suspended with immediate effect. The Sarawak Tribune is closed down.
Riots in Kuching? No, sorry to disappoint. Everyone I’ve talked to is short on rage; the most common reaction is a shaking of the head. What on earth could the editor have been thinking? Religious satire (if we can politely describe those cartoons as such) is so far beyond the limits of acceptable public speech here that it really is puzzling. There are three or four possibilities that I can see.
It could have been a complete oversight. The paper borrows heavily from news networks like Rueters and the Associated Press for its stories. A lot of copy-and-paste goes on – maybe the cartoons were included by accident.
Was it religious hostility, a desire to offend? That would be a pretty hasty conclusion. Religion is a delicate issue in Malaysia, far more than it is in the US. The US is funny that way. People in the States are far more touchy about race than religion. I think it has to do with the religious plurality of Malaysia. The US and Malaysia may both have a similar mix of ethnic minorities, but the largest ethnic minorities in the US, Blacks and Hispanics, are Christian. In Malaysia, ethnic minorities are also religious minorities (with the exception of Indian muslims and a smattering of converts). Maybe that’s not the whole picture, but I think it is part of the reason why religion is as taboo as race between communities. Religious issues are even more touchy here in Sarawak since it is the only Christian majority state in the country. Some may use the existence of tension and the fact that the editors involved were non-muslim to argue weakly for or be suspicious of religious prejudice behind the incident, but it doesn’t wash, because the cartoons were printed extremely small, too small for anybody to read and make sense out of what they were saying (assuming they made sense – I still haven’t read them).
The European papers that reprinted the cartoons have done so out of journalistic solidarity, to demonstrate their rights or what have you. Was the Sarawak Tribune challenging the government, testing the boundaries of free speech? It doesn’t seem likely. As I’ve mentioned before, the media in Malaysia is extremely docile. More so here in Sarawak, where leading government officials get glamour shots on the front page every other day, and reporting of any significant event is reduced to paraphrase of the relevant politician’s press release. If the Sarawak Tribune did want to push the limits of editorial freedom, why not publish on corruption, cronyism, bribery, abuse of power? Those things should be matters of immediate concern to every Sarawakian and reporting on them a far more vital service by the paper to its readership. Muslims and non-muslims alike may have supported bravery in journalism of that kind. As it is, this incident simply allows the government to flex its censorial muscles and enjoy popular support while doing so. So if this was an attempt to make a statement about or to push the bounds of free speech, as some commenters over at Screenshots seem to be arguing, it was a singularly misplaced one.
But I don’t think it was. The second article I linked mentioned that the Trib had actually been reprimanded three times already last year for publishing sensational images of sex and gore. I’ve often thought that the bloody car wreck photos and the like were a bit excessive, but I didn’t notice that it was the Sarawak Tribune exclusively publishing them. If the Trib has indeed been going further with salacious images to boost readership, then maybe publication of the cartoons was just a poorly considered attempt to do the same thing. That would also make the government’s reaction even more understandable. It wasn’t a one time event, it was a fourth offense.
Either way, things are chill here. Embassies are intact, streets are calm. The only unfortunate thing is that the citizens of Sarawak will have no choice but to siang their ikan on the Borneo Post from now on.[More on Malaysian journalism from ] [More on the suspension of the Sarawak Tribune]