COMMENT Let me start by saying, “If writing the truth, asking questions, taking a minister to task or making a powerful figure accountable are seditious, then let us all be seditious!”
I say this as one who has been detained under the Sedition Act 1948, the first in my profession to be threatened with this archaic law left behind by our British colonial masters.
And what an irony, because it happened only days after our country celebrated 57 years of independence from Britain.
It was also the time when the police crackdown on at least 20 individuals, from opposition politicians to academicians, activists, students, preachers and lawyers, under the same Act.
I know I am not alone. Journalists all over the world are being prosecuted for the work they do, some are killed, or maimed, thrown in jail, tortured, harassed, abused and even threatened with death.
On Sept 4, I became an ' orang kena tangkap ’, code-named OKT or loosely translated, 'a detainee'. I was interrogated for nine hours on a news report I wrote, headlined: Exco man grilled for four hours, treated like a 'criminal' .
My detention came in the wake of 10 police reports lodged against me by 14 pro-government NGOs. These are diehard supporters of the Sedition Act and worshipers of Prime Minister Najib Razak.
My interrogator told me that the words 'like a criminal' in my report not only offended these NGOs, who may represent hundreds or thousands, they also pissed off Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar.
He said my detention is a warning to other journalists so that they do not take the same route as I allegedly did.
Journalists have to be 'responsible and cautious' when writing reports. And, why should I be "helping" an opposition politician?
Honestly, I felt as though I was being ticked off by my editor!
My interrogator went on to say that my story had cast a negative light on the police force and asked me point blank, "Do you realise how many police personnel have been angered by your story?”
I said I had merely written a news story quoting state executive councillor Phee Boon Poh, who was detained for taking part in the allegedly illegal activities of the now outlawed Voluntary Patrol Unit (PPS).
Phee said he was documented like a criminal, with his photographs and fingerprints taken. The report did not say that the Sungai Puyu assemblyperson was beaten or abused by the police.
Treated like criminal
I tried to pass on the responsibility of the published article to my chief editor in Kuala Lumpur.
But my interrogator replied, "So what? You wrote the story. If you did not write, it would not have been published!"
I asked, "If you did not think he was a criminal, would you have arrested or detained him?" He did not answer.
During the nine hours, I too was treated like a criminal, my phone, the machine with which I file my stories, was seized, my photograph and fingerprints were taken and a file on my life story was opened in my name.
Will I be prosecuted or not? A conviction means a maximum jail sentence of three years, a fine of not more than RM5,000 or both.
My interrogator told me that the investigation papers on me are still with the Attorney-General's Chambers, pending a decision to charge me or not.
And if this was not enough, this controversial story on the PPS was cited as one of the five reasons why the home minister rejected Malaysiakini ’s application for a print permit.
This story, like the other four reports, can cause public distress, said the home minister.
Wow! That’s how powerful journalism is in this country!
But the decision of the home minister and my interrogator’s remarks that the article would not have been published if I did not write it are great implications on our jobs as journalists.
It makes us solely responsible for our reports. The underlying message is, “Don’t write that report”.
Because anything you write can be seditious, can piss off someone at the top, or can hurt someone’s feelings, and may invite dozens of police reports against you.
Doesn’t it make it very difficult for us to work then, since our jobs as journalists are not to make people happy?
Not here to say 'I love you'
We’re not a happiness bakery or a smile production company.
We’re here to tell it as it is. I like what my chief editor Fathi Aris Omar said in his Facebook on Oct 3: “ Malaysiakini is a newspaper and not a love letter”, or else we’ll be writing, “I love you, Minister! Muah! Muah!”
These days I am often asked, “Am I afraid of being seditious again?” My reply, surely, is: “Absolutely not!”
In this country, one does not know where to draw the line. You are seditious, just as long as you offend the 'right' group. It does not really matter what you say.
The double standards in prosecution under the Sedition Act are aplenty. I need not regurgitate the examples.
Whatever the authorities or the powerful do to journalists, whether it is murder, jail time or questioning for hours, it is to stop us from doing our duty, to prevent us from being documenters of history, or participants in the democratic struggle of our nations.
When I chided a top politician (in my Facebook ) for sometimes treating us just like stenographers, many of my peers were angry with me.
Indeed, the truth hurts. But this is what we have become - as most of our daily work entails processing statements, rewriting stories, repeating remarks in a press conference when we are not allowed to ask questions - or, do not get answers when asking questions.
Detention has united us
We have to fight this sad state of affairs. We must be united in this, not just accept our fates or become the stenographers that politicians love us to be.
When the police acted on me, I was touched to see how the world responded in support of me, in support of Malaysiakini and free and independent media.
Journalists organisations from New York and France, from Bangkok to Indonesia condemned the police action.
In Penang, my peers from the Penang Chinese Journalists and Photographers Association submitted a memorandum to the chief of police to ask that no further action be taken against me.
In Kuala Lumpur, the National Union of Journalists issued a statement asking the police to apologise to me. Bravo!
And my comrades in the newly formed Institute of Journalists (IOJ) sent a petition of 200 over signatures to the Prime Minister’s Department asking that charges against me be dropped.
Lawyers came together to speak to journalists about how they can protect themselves against Sedition charges.
For all these, I am thankful.
Indeed every cloud has a silver lining. My detention, though brief, has put our profession and our struggles once again in the limelight.
The world is again reminded about how journalists become victims in the power struggle between politicians and journalists who do not toe the line.
We also become victims of those who are being victimised by their paymasters, the police for example, who have no choice but to kow tow to the government of the day.
Not enough jails
As Phee, my partner in crime, said "The police too, are victims of circumstances”.
Be rest assured that when you get in trouble, our comrades will fight and speak up for us, and we must do the same for one another.
Be not afraid, although everyday we feel the noose of dictatorship tighten around us. Carry on, speak and write the truth, confidently, no matter how difficult, no matter how "seditious".
If all of us are seditious, when all of us are brave, how many more jails will they build to keep us in? To borrow a line from Victor Hugo, how many prisons does it take to stop an idea whose time has come?
This is an edited version of Malaysiakini journalist SUSAN LOONE's speech at the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa) regional conference on media and the Internet, in Kuala Lumpur yesterday evening.