Mahathir shares blame in M'sian media's 1MDB letdown: Editor
Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad shares blame for the Malaysian media's difficulty in exposing the 1MDB scandal because of the reportting restrictions put in place during his earlier stewardship as Prime Minister in the 1980s following the Bank Bumiputra scandal.
Referring to the Official Secrets Act, in particular, Daily Express Chief Editor James Sarda, JP, said the OSA was the single most important piece of legislation that had long prevented journalists in this country from carrying out their duties as watchdogs or the Fourth Estate.
"Just any file under the sun can be stamped 'Rahsia' (secret) by a government official and nothing can be reported about it, even if it is about the transfer of hundreds of millions of ringgit under myriad deals as evidenced in the 1MDB scam and have nothing to do with national security," he told a dozen international journalists from various countries who were in Sabah under the Jefferson Fellowship programme, Saturday.
James who was picked to address the Fellows on Malaysian media by the programme's coordinator, the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS), said that, in fact, the Daily Express was the first newspaper to be hauled up under the OSA when it was tightened in 1984.
However, he said the case was dropped midway when it was established that what the paper had reported about a statutory body head having his official Mercedes approved as a farewell gift and billing the renovations done on his home to taxpayers were not lies but facts.
James, a Chevening scholar who has a Masters in Journalism from Cardiff University (Wales) said, on hindsight, perhaps Dr Mahathir did not expect how the OSA which he reviewed back then would play a role in helping his predecessor keep information on 1MDB from becoming public knowledge 40 years down the road.
"But the fact remains that the local media were unable to play a key role in exposing the scandal.
"Fortunately, we have the Internet and social media to thank for, especially Sarawak Report, which the previous government even blocked.
"Of course the occasional bursts of information coming from the US Department of Justice also helped because on the local front portals like Malaysiakini were sued and the Edge had to go to court to get their ban lifted."
James noted that the 93-year-old Premier had been making fantastic decisions lately such as placing the MACC (Malaysian Anti-Corruption Agency, human rights commission Suhakam and the Election Commission, among others) under Parliament so that their heads are no longer answerable to Ministers as in the previous government but the people..
"It is something that the opposition had also demanded of him when he was the PM the last time but declined.
Nevertheless, that he had done so in his second coming is something for Malaysians to be grateful because the question that will always be asked is, if not him (who would do it)?
"However Dr Mahathir seems to have forgotten about the OSA and I wish he would restrict it only to matters of national security and defence.
"I suggest that he even go one step further and introduce a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act as well so that no government department or individual will refuse to divulge any information that is necessary for the public to know, failing which they could be jailed for contempt."
In the US, the FOI enacted in 1966 required government records except those relating to national security, confidential financial data and law enforcement be made available to the public on request.
James said the FOI Act was enacted by two Opposition State Governments in the previous Barisan Nasional (BN) Government.
"They are Selangor and Penang, and it was a success because the Selangor Government under Datuk Azmin Ali became more accountable in terms of money that was spent and decisions that were made.
"The Penang Government which was under Lim Guan Eng also introduced the FOI.
The beauty is that both Lim and Azmin are two of Dr Mahathir's strongest supporters in the Federal Cabinet.
"So please also introduce the FOI so that journalists can play our role better for good governance," he said, noting that the new Law Minister, Datuk VK Liew, is from Sabah who had said he would look into enhancing some of the laws. - Mary Chin