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CIJ expresses concern over Home Ministry's reaction to newspaper's error

(CIJ/IFEX) - 17 August 2011 - The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) Malaysia regrets that the Home Ministry has seen fit to haul up "The Star" twice over the newspaper's mistake in titling its 10 August 2011 food supplement "Ramadhan delights", despite also featuring non-halal eateries.

The Ministry issued "The Star" a show-cause letter and Group Chief Editor Wong Chun Wai was called in to explain the error to Home Minister Hishamuddin Hussein on 16 August after a similar 11 August meeting between Supplements Editor Johnni Wong and ministerial officers left them unsatisfied.

Firstly, it was clearly an unintentional oversight, given the common understanding about the halal issue in this country and the fact that the paper, which is owned by a major component of the ruling party, would be more than well aware of the position of Islam as the religion of the federation and the sensitivities associated with that.

Secondly, the error has not caused any actual harm and any confusion would have been easily dispelled by the newspaper's readers.

Viewed in this light, the ministry's intervention and rejection of the first apology, which was published in the paper on 12 August, are highly disproportionate, reflecting the ridiculous extent of the power accorded to it over print media under the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) 1984. Indeed, such unintentional and rectifiable transgressions can easily be used as an excuse to revoke a paper's publishing licence under this draconian law.

And while "The Star" did right by publicly apologising again on 16 August and explaining how the oversight happened, promising to put in place better checks in the editorial work flow to prevent such a mistake from happening again, this unintentional error does not merit the "stern action" promised to all responsible. So far, the paper has suspended the supplements editor, though the duration of the suspension is unknown.

CIJ calls for level-headedness from all parties who have grievances against the media, especially where any perceived harm is easily contained without state interference. The latest sorry episode shows yet again how the PPPA is easily used as a tool to keep print media under executive control and encourage press self-censorship, which is why it must therefore be abolished in the people's interest.

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