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MALAYSIA: Former media bosses duel over press issues

Ex-NST chief criticizes information minister for suppressing media freedom

Straits Times
Wednesday, February 22, 2006

By Reme Ahmad

Kuala Lumpur --- Two former media chiefs are slugging it out in the open over how the press should behave, a fight that could well have a bearing on how the media operates.

On one side of the ring is Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin, promoted from the deputy post last week.

Known widely as Datuk Zam, he was formerly group editor-in-chief of the Umno-owned mass-selling newspaper Utusan Malaysia.

On the other side is Datuk Kalimullah Hassan, former editor-in-chief of the Umno-controlled New Straits Times (NST) group and a confidant of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi.

Called Kali by his friends, the former correspondent for Reuters news agency and The Straits Times of Singapore is now the NST adviser and executive chairman of financial services group ECM Libra.

The clash is being keenly watched amid a debate on media freedom -- the subject was raised by Cabinet ministers with Datuk Seri Abdullah barely two weeks ago.

The ministers felt that media reports had gone too far in attacking their work and that of the state authorities.

Popular Bahasa news website dubbed the duel between the media veterans as "Zam vs Kali -- who is the boss?"

The face-off has also led to questions within Umno about whether the NST should have published Datuk Kalimullah's column that openly attacked Datuk Zainuddin, a minister with the party.

And Datuk Kalimullah's expose of what went on in an Umno bureau meeting last week raised eyebrows on whether discussions on party matters should be made public.

Datuk Kalimullah, writing in a NST column last week, said Datuk Zainuddin has had run-ins with senior media executives "partly because he sees himself as editor of the Malaysian media," and added: "There is no such position."

He revealed that Datuk Zainuddin had sought the sacking of top NST editors at a meeting of Umno's information bureau because he was unhappy with the way the NST had played up certain issues such as the religious rights of minorities and the government's policy on bumiputeras.

Asked to respond on Monday, Datuk Zainuddin said: "I am not going to entertain rubbish. I have the bigger picture in mind."

He quickly clarified to reporters: "I'm not saying NST is rubbish, don't misunderstand me. I am just saying that I'm not going to entertain petty things."

News portal quoted him as then asking: "Do I look like your enemy? Do I look like your editor? No!"

While Cabinet ministers have accepted that the Prime Minister wants more press freedom in order to raise public accountability and transparency, some believe media reports have been too negative.

Last week, Datuk Zainuddin signalled his unhappiness with some journalists by saying: "There is evidence to show they are not being sensitive over certain issues. This happens because there are journalists from the local media who, having served with the foreign media, embrace the Western-style freedom."

This raised hackles in the NST, which has the most number of reporters who have had experience working for foreign media groups.