By Luke Hunt
It's been in the planning for decades. And despite being cleverly knocked on the head once by the Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Kuala Lumpur finally has its own Foreign Correspondents Club (FCCM).
The club's first president, Romen Bose of Agence France-Presse, said after the inaugural meeting was held at the Equatorial Hotel that Malaysia was experiencing something of a media renaissance.
‘The idea of a foreign correspondents club in Malaysia isn’t new in that several groups had tried over the years to get one set up, and many had gone as far as having initial meetings and an executive committee drawn up, but were unable to get permission from the authorities.
‘The last time a group of journalists tried to set one up was in 1992 when then AFP bureau chief Mervin Nambiar and a group of very senior correspondents had banded together to push for the club to be set up, but the powers that be refused to allow its formation,’ he said.
Online media is flourishing in this country and challenging a repressed mainstream press. Prime Minister Najib Razak more recently has bowed to media reports and announced an inquiry into alleged electoral irregularities, the source of violent rallies in the capital in early July.
In doing this, he conceded the government’s censorship of an article in The Economist on the Bersih protest rally was ineffective and promised to review his country’s censorship methods.
‘If the international media wants to criticise us, let them. If we need to, we engage them. We give our side of story, and if they have crossed the line, then we have to resort to legal means,’ he said.
Foreign correspondents have traditionally found this country difficult territory in which to operate and are often widely disliked by local journalists who are coerced into toeing a management line while the outsiders are free to report as they see fit. This is largely because newspaper owners require a license to publish that must be renewed each year, resulting in coverage that’s heavily self-censored and primarily used to support government policies.
‘For too long, it was an easy out to say that the foreign media were not reporting the “real story” or were “twisting facts” or were “pro-opposition” when the reality of the matter was that the government newsmakers were unwilling or unable to engage foreign correspondents to provide their side of the story,’ Bose said.
As the paperwork from previous FCC bids languished on the mahogany desks of bureaucrats, one senior journalist was once pulled aside by Mahathir. Dismayed, the then prime minister asked: ‘Why do you want to establish a Foreign Correspondents Club here when if you have any problems you can always come and talk to me personally?’
It possibly never dawned on the leader that such cosy relations between the media and the executive arm of government was considered anathema to foreign journalists, who were also disturbed by the sycophantic relations encouraged by the government and state-linked press.Read more.