|Laman Webantu KM2A1: 4599 File Size: 7.2 Kb *|
ATimes: If you can't beat 'em, buy 'em
By Anil Netto
1/6/2001 3:12 am Fri
If you can't beat 'em, buy 'em
By Anil Netto
PENANG - Two Chinese-language newspapers in Malaysia are on the brink
of being taken over - but this is no ordinary business deal. The sale
of these relatively independent newspapers to the investment arm of
the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the second largest party in
the ruling coalition, has triggered a storm of protests and split the
already faction-ridden MCA leadership.
The deal for the takeover of the two newspapers, Nanyang Siang Pau and
China Press, is due to be inked on Thursday, but mounting opposition
is threatening to scuttle it.
Hume Industries (M) Bhd announced on Monday it had agreed to sell its
72.35 percent stake in Nanyang Press Holdings, the publisher of the
two papers, to Huaren Management Sdn Bhd for 230 million ringgit
(US$60 million). Huaren, the MCA's investment arm, already controls
Star Publications, publisher of the top-selling pro-establishment
English daily, The Star. Hume is owned by tycoon Quek Leng Chan's Hong
Critics fear the takeover could undermine the editorial independence
of the two Chinese dailies and further erode what's left of media
freedom in Malaysia. If the deal goes through almost all the major
electronic and print media will be owned by firms linked directly or
indirectly to the ruling coalition.
The fears about interference in editorial policy are not unfounded
despite assurances from the MCA that the papers' editorial integrity
will be preserved. Already several senior management and editorial
staff have been removed.
There have been daily protests, pickets and press conferences to
protest the takeover. Some 40 writers for the Nanyang Siang Pau and
China Press have announced they will quit contributing to the two
dailies if the takeover goes through. A growing number of independent
Chinese associations have also come out in opposition to the deal.
Public interest groups are treating it as their last stand in the
defense of print media freedom.
But what has surprised observers is that top MCA leaders have broken
ranks over the deal. MCA president Ling Liong Sik says that Huaren
will go ahead with the purchase if it proves commercially viable. But
other key MCA leaders worry that the backlash from Chinese
associations, public interest groups and the public could erode
support for the ruling coalition in the next general election due by
MCA deputy president Lim Ah Lek has expressed dissatisfaction with the
deal, while party vice president Chua Jui Meng issued a strongly
worded statement upon his return from Europe on Tuesday. Two MCA
members of Parliament and six state assembly members have also voiced
Chua revealed that he is one of the four trustees and shareholders of
Huaren Holdings and there had been no meeting among them to discuss
the acquisition of Nanyang Press. "Yet I am told that an agreement has
been entered into with Hume Industries, the owners of Nanyang Press,
by certain parties purporting to represent Huaren and that they have
paid 10 percent of the purchase price and immediately took over
administrative control of Nanyang Press. Is this proper?"
Chua complained that the MCA central committee meeting that was
scheduled for Wednesday would be presented with a "fait accompli" of a
done deal. He asserted that a meeting of the Huaren trustees and
shareholders should be called first to consider a feasibility report
of the proposed takeover, the financing of the deal and its financial
implications for Huaren.
Nanyang's circulation at the end of June 2000 was 177,000, while China
Press sells 127,000 copies. Nanyang was for many years the top-selling
Chinese paper until it was overtaken by Sin Chew Jit Poh, which now
has a circulation of 276,000.
Sin Chew Jit Poh and its sister paper, Guang Ming Daily News, were
initially also expected to take up a stake in Nanyang, effectively
putting all the major Chinese newspapers under one roof. Speculation
of Sin Chew's involvement had mounted when the group chief executive
of Sin Chew group, P C Liew, took charge of Nanyang operations over
the past week. But Permandangan Sinar, the Sin Chew/Guang Ming
publisher, denied that it was involved in the Nanyang takeover and
clarified that Liew has resigned from his post in Sin Chew.
Still, the MCA's takeover of Nanyang is reminiscent of United Malays
National Organization's (Umno's) takeover of the Malay-language daily
Utusan Melayu in 1961. That takeover triggered a bitter but
unsuccessful 93-day strike among Utusan journalists and production
workers. In the 1980s, the MCA took over the Tong Bao newspaper, which
eventually collapsed due to declining Chinese readership.
In recent months, the Chinese dailies have provided a range of views
on controversial subjects such as factional struggles within the MCA,
the character and future of Chinese vernacular schools and
ethnic-based quotas for university admission. Many of these issues
have upset the community and potentially undermined support for the
MCA. Analysts say the MCA is probably hoping that the takeover of the
Chinese dailies will limit the range of views expressed.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has adopted a hands-off approach to
the deal: "I wouldn't know. It's not my business to look after." He
dismissed talk that the deal was politically motivated. "Nanyang is a
newspaper. Anybody can take it over."
But analysts have pointed out that Mahathir's Umno, which now
increasingly relies on non-Malay support following an erosion in Malay
support, will also stand to gain from the takeover as the independence
of the media is further curtailed. On World Press Freedom Day this
year, the Committee to Protect Journalists named Mahathir as one of
the top 10 enemies of press freedom for the third straight year.
The Chinese-language papers have been relatively more independent than
the Malay and English-language press. They have provided a broad
spectrum of news including coverage of reformasi demonstrations and
statements by opposition politicians.
For the MCA, and especially its president, it is a no-win situation. Its central committee was due to meet on Wednesday to make a decision on the deal. If the deal is aborted, it will be a victory for the rival factions and strengthen their hand. And if the deal is rammed through, the MCA itself will be blamed for single-handedly crushing the independent spirit of two of the community's cultural icons and in the process dealing a fatal blow for press freedom in Malaysia.