Malaysia's Internal Security Ministry on Friday ordered the Makkal Osai daily to stop publishing for one month after a picture appeared this week showing Jesus Christ clutching a cigarette and what appeared to be a beer can.
The Tamil-language newspaper has insisted that it printed the picture by accident after a staff member failed to spot that Jesus was apparently smoking.
The suspension "will only create a very chilling effect on free expression and is not conducive to creating a vibrant media space," said Lim Kit Siang, an opposition politician with the Democratic Action Party.
He said the matter should have been allowed to rest as there was no malice intended and Christian leaders had accepted the paper's apology.
Media freedom watchdog the Centre for Independent Journalism called the government decision "unwarranted and high-handed".
"That a suspension order can be so swiftly imposed and despite the paper having apologized ... indicate continual disregard for freedom of the press and that alternative expression on religion must not be tolerated," they said.
The picture, published on Tuesday, was used to illustrate an article on the sayings of great leaders, and ran with the quote: "If someone repents for his mistakes, then heaven awaits them."
S.M. Periasamy, general manager of the paper, which caters to multicultural Malaysia's Indian community, said they would appeal the suspension.
"We hope the government will cut it to just one week. The one-month suspension is drastic," he said.
Industry officials say one possible reason for the tough action could be because of the paper's criticism of the leadership of the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), a leading member of the ruling National Front coalition.
Local press has reported that a MIC party member lodged a police complaint saying the picture threatened national harmony.
"The Christian issue has been blown up by the MIC," Periasamy said. More than 60 per cent of Malaysia's 27 million people are Muslim Malays and Islam is the country's official religion.
But the constitution guarantees freedom of religion for minority Buddhists, Hindus and Christians, although religious minority groups have recently expressed fear that their rights are being undermined.
Malaysia's media is largely state-linked and kept under tight control.Behind the Makkal Osai’s suspension...
Aug 25, 07 Malaysiakini
The Internal Security Ministry’s decision to temporarily suspend the publishing license of Tamil daily Makkal Osai has raised several questions over the motives of the move.
Ministry officials said the suspension was punishment for the daily’s publication of an image of Jesus Christ which was deemed inappropriate and could endanger public order.
But Christian groups who initially protested against the daily however appear to be taken aback by the government’s reaction to the matter.
Thus far, two of Malaysia’s biggest Christian organisations - Roman Catholic (RC) Church and the Council of Churches Malaysia (CCM), representing Anglicans - have accepted Makkal Osai’s subsequent apology on the matter.
According to Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhsm (MCCBCHS) president A Vaithilingam (left), upon consultation with Christian leaders in the council, found the suspension to be “drastic” for a “genuine error”.
(The RC Church, CCM and the National Christian Evangelical Fellowship together form the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM), which represents some 90 percent of the Malaysian Christian community. CFM is also part of the MCCBCHS).
“The matter has been forgiven by Christian leaders and the daily apologised two days in succession. In a matter of days, the ministry ordered for the suspension. I don’t know if they really investigated the matter or not,” Vaithilingam told malaysiakini.
Vaithilingam said the MCCBCHS’s position was also made known to a high-ranking Internal Security Ministry official who contacted him yesterday.
“The official said that the prime minister wanted to know our view on the matter. We suggested that a written warning would suffice,” Vaithilingam told malaysiakini.
Similarly, Archbishop Murphy Pakiam (right) said he was “perplexed and bemused” by the suspension.
“Christians believe in reconciliation. We are confident that the newspaper was sincere in its apology and will see to it that this does not happen again,” said Murphy in the New Straits Times today.
Previously, a delegation from Makkal Osai had met with Murphy to explain the matter where the latter had reportedly accepted their apology.
When contacted, CCM secretary-general Rev Dr Hermen Shastri too described the suspension as “drastic” as Makkal Osai had proven they had no ill-intent.
“The consequences of which, innocent people would not be getting their salary (due to the suspension). This is not the Christian way,” he said.
Herman also questioned why the government had acted so swiftly on this matter but had not tackled other problems in the country, such as investigating the mob who confronted a Church in Ipoh.
Makkal Osai, the country’s second best selling Tamil newspaper, published a picture of Jesus Christ purportedly holding a cigarette in one hand and a drink can in the other on the front-page of the daily’s Tuesday edition.
Accompanying the picture was a caption saying: “If someone repents for his mistakes, then heaven awaits him”.
The image and the message was part of the daily’s regular ‘Thought for the Day’ feature which highlighted famous quotations of world leaders and philosophers.
Menawhile, Makkal Osai general manage M Periasamy (left) in a press statement today alleged that the matter had been blown out of proportion by MIC politicians.
“(Their statements) do not respect the views of Christian leaders who represent Christian groups and have taking advantage of the situation to stir religious sentiments for their political gains,” he said.
Periasamy also alleged that MIC politicians are instigating their members to lodge police reports on Makkal Osai.
‘Strangling the truth’
Makkal Osai is closely aligned to former MIC deputy president S Subramaniam, who is known to be MIC president Samy Vellu’s arch rival.
The daily had consistently produced critical reports against the MIC such as the criticism on the party’s problem-ridden investment arm Maika Holdings.
“(Their attacks against us now) is a ploy to stir up the (controversy over the picture) in order to strangle the truth,” added Periasamy.
He is expected to appeal against the ministry’s suspension on Monday.
The daily has a staff strength of nearly 100. It is understood that a Makkal Osai staff has been suspended indefinitely over the incident.
Makkal Osai is the latest victim in a string of ‘disciplinary actions’ taken media outlets ever since Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who is also internal security minister, came to power in 2003.