The demise of The Sarawak Tribune leaves many wondering how serious the government is in promoting a democracy that values diversity and tolerance. It is regrettable that the government has decided to suspend The Sarawak Tribune (ST) for reprinting the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad. The suspension is inappropriate and does not help promote Malaysia’s moderate Islamic image.
Like all Malaysians, the Prime Minister and the cabinet were understandably concerned over what the paper had done. The caricatures were insensitive to Muslims. The paper, however, also quickly took immediate remedial action: an on-site editor (Lester Melanyi) was swiftly fired; an apology was also publicly offered – twice – without any ifs or buts; and a high-level meeting between the paper and the government was held in Putrajaya.
All this appeared to indicate the paper suffered a serious lapse of judgment in running the cartoons. And there was nothing to suggest they acted out of any mischief or perverted motivation similar to those of the Danish and other European papers that printed and reprinted the cartoons.
Make no mistake: The Tribune blundered in reprinting the cartoons. But, short of suspension, there are appropriate ways to deal with this lapse of judgment. One of them would be the very actions taken by the paper itself, that is, removing the on-site editor and apologising to the public. The public could also have boycotted the paper. Such a non-violent response would have hit the paper where it hurts, financially. The government could have slapped a fine on the paper too. And if investigation uncovered evidence that more than a lapse of judgment was involved the paper could have been hauled to court.
Some suggested that the suspension decision was taken partly because the PM currently chairs the Organisation of Islamic Conference. According to this argument, the PM wanted to send a clear message to Islamic countries.
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But the suspension decision – so quickly arrived at – suggests that moderation was not given due consideration by the PM and his cabinet ministers. If we want to continue to affirm our message to the world that Malaysia is just as capable as the West in exercising moderation and tolerance, the suspension has muddied the message. If we want moderates in the West—those who cherish a responsible approach to freedom of the press in order to promote a democracy that values diversity and tolerance—to build bridges with moderate Muslims, the suspension message will give them pause. Meanwhile, the extremist, irresponsible purveyors of freedom in the West would use the suspension decision to further justify their arrogant agenda and view of Muslims as incapable of moderation and understanding the importance of freedom of the press.
The decision would also burden moderate Muslims attempting to build bridges with moderates in the West. These moderate Muslims would have to explain the suspension decision and clear the air in order to move forward with moderates in the West. And that is adding more burden to what is already a burdensome task given September 11.
There were also suggestions that conservative cabinet ministers managed to push through the suspension decision. According to this theory, some politicians had become increasingly uncomfortable with what they perceived to be the Malaysian media lately becoming more “aggressive” in their criticism of them, and they were eager to check this trend. If this is true, it is regrettable that their view should carry the day because, with the suspension decision, the world will now wonder how serious the Malaysian government in promoting a democracy that values diversity and tolerance.