It is good that Utusan Malaysia has admitted its grave error, and published an apology to former United States Ambassador to Malaysia, John R Malott yesterday. The daily should be commended for this. However, it should not, in my opinion, deter us from examining the original issue critically and from various perspectives.
The issues should be addressed with the positive intention of liberating our media and journalists from the mental, psychological and ideological shackles of the quixotic Cold Warriors.
On April 30, Utusan Malaysia front-paged a report headlined ' Bekas duta Amerika hadiri pertemuan sulit Keadilan '( Former US ambassador attends secret meeting with Keadilan).The report claimed Malott was present in the close-door briefing on former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim's state of health at a hotel in Petaling Jaya (a day earlier).
However, the truth of the matter is that at the material date and time, Malott was in California and that the briefing session was organized by Anwar's family for invited guests, including foreign diplomats. Among the diplomats present were two from the US embassy, James F Entwistle and Alexis Ludwig.
The US embassy in Kuala Lumpur confirmed the attendance of the two diplomats whereas Malott personally and openly denied he was in Malaysia at the given date and time.
Utusan Malaysia was factually wrong. How could such an error or mistake spearheaded by a sensational and highly imaginative headline, make its way to the front-page of a mainstream newspaper?
According to the daily's apology, the error occurred due to a mistaken identity.
Assuming we accept this account, one can't help but ask: How can a newspaper report confirm the presence or absence of a person or a group of persons whom it regards as 'controversial' and 'powerful', without its own reporter on the spot, and merely ' berlandaskan maklumat yang boleh dipercayai '(based on reliable information)?
This reminds me of another Utusan Malaysia report dated Oct 4, 1998 which suggested that a group of pro-reformasi female demonstrators were prostitutes ( pelacur-pelacur ) hired by non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
More than a week later the then police chief of Kuala Lumpur Kamaruddin Ali openly denied the validity of the report.
While we could question the reasonableness of the Printing Presses and Publications Act, and its selective enforcement, the fact remains that publishing 'false news' is a criminal offence under the law.
Whichever account we choose to believe, it is clear that Utusan Malaysia's report on the 'secret briefing' seems to carry strong elements of propaganda and psychological warfare.
It gives the impression that Barisan Alternatif leaders are 'conspiring with foreign powers' to do something 'sinister or unspeakable' against their country. Thus the choice of words like " pertemuan sulit " (secret meeting).
In my judgement as a normal human being, I do not see any 'secrecy' in the conduct of the close-door briefing, whatever its contents may be. The meeting was called by the family of Anwar Ibrahim.
I saw the notice about the alleged 'secret meeting' posted on the freeanwar.com website several days before. Many journalists were aware about it, although not all were invited.
Perhaps, Utusan Malaysia 's sense of self-importance is so great that for it not to be invited to attend an event, would amount to that event being a 'secret meeting' in the spy-catchers' sense of the word.
Journalists or spooks?
The reality is, Utusan Malaysia is only one of the many newspapers in this transparent world. What about foreign diplomats? Aren't they all baleful spies? Let us not think too mysteriously or too fancifully in the press room, which has not been empowered by law to be spy-catchers.
Let us journalists just stick to Article 3(1)(d) of The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961) which clearly states one of the functions of a diplomat is to ascertain "by all lawful means conditions and developments in the receiving state, and reporting thereon to the government of the sending state".
Article 3(1)(b) of The Vienna Convention also states that another function is to protect "in the receiving state the interests of the sending state and its nationals, within the limits permitted by international law".
Under The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961), not only are diplomats from other countries entitled to immunities and freedom of movement to perform their duties in Malaysia, our diplomats in Washington., London, Canberra, Wellington or Manila too are free to ascertain "by all lawful means conditions and developments" in US, Britain, Australia, New Zealand or the Philippines.
And just as our diplomats are not barred from meeting opposition leaders of other countries, Malaysia should not attempt to interfere into the normal course of modern international law either
Under modern international laws and conventions, all inter-national relationships are based on reciprocity.
And it is also wrong to try and project the images of "foreign powers" like US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand as if we are still living in the era of Sukarno's Nasakom ..These countries are major sources of investment funds and also destinations for our students.
Malaysia is still a member of the Five-Powers Defence Arrangment which links our military with those of Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. Malaysia also permits and welcomes American warships to dock at Port Klang.
Barisan Alternatif, on its part, should maintain good, normal and lawful relations with all lawful institutions of our international friends, within the boundaries of domestic and international laws because it aspires and strives to be an alternative government.
It is also time for journalists in Malaysia to read up books on modern international laws and post- Cold War international relations to catch up with new realities.