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Utusan Malaysia: Behind the print

 | May 11, 2011

Utusan Malaysia's former senior journalist explains why the paper will never be investigated and why Malaysians should take it seriously.

KUALA LUMPUR: Many uncomplimentary descriptions have been accorded to Utusan Malaysia. The more common of those include “irresponsible”, “mischievous ” and “dangerous”. Of that trio, Utusan Malaysia’s former senior journalist, Hata Wahari, says that the third is dead-on.

The mainstream media, for as long as they pander to the government, enjoy immunity from public prosecution. But Utusan Malaysia has earned a special place within this untouchable clique simply by the virtue of being owned by Umno.

This privilege has spawned relentless attacks on the opposition and increasingly frequent inflammatory reports on race and religion. But while most urbanites can see right through Utusan Malaysia’s thinly-veiled propaganda, its rural readership remains staunch believers. For this reason alone, Hata warned that giving Utusan Malaysia the brush-off would be a very bad idea.

“People should worry about the slander it publishes because it is taking root in the rural areas,” he told FMT. “KL and Selangor are multi-cultural and able to discuss Utusan’s reports among themselves to seek clarification.”

“But the rural community is predominantly Malay-Muslim. Who are they going to cross-check their facts with? Neither is there another Malay-language paper to counter Utusan’s reports. The only media they are exposed to is government-owned media.”

“The racial flames are being stoked there and one day it will explode. I’m very afraid of that. If anything were to happen, it will begin in the rural areas. I have said before that another May 13 is likely if Utusan is allowed to continue playing up rubbish issues.”

Hata, who is the president of the National Union of Journalists, was given the boot from Utusan Malaysia on April 21 for allegedly tarnishing the paper’s image with such statements. But the termination came as a relief as he could no longer stomach the editorial content that almost flaunted the paper’s role as an Umno tool. Yet he said it wasn’t always this way.

“When I joined in 1995, Utusan was a paper that focused on Malay grassroots issues more than political ones,” he recalled. “The former editor-in-chief, Khalid Mohammad, had more control over the editorial content and former prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, was more open to editorial-related discussions.”

“The Awang Selamat column was used to put forth suggestions on how Umno could address the issues affecting the Malay community. It wasn’t meant to attack people or parties. And even then the column was pulled after two months because of poor response.”

Awang Selamat has since been resurrected and according to Hata, the current column for Mingguan Malaysia is written by the editor-in-chief while the senior editors take turns penning the column in Utusan Malaysia.

Editorial agenda set by Umno

The swing in Utusan Malaysia’s stance came shortly after the 2008 election when Khalid was replaced by Aziz Ishak. According to Hata, the latter does not question the editorial directives set by the Umno political bureau which reportedly sits every Monday night to discuss the paper’s agenda for the week.

Those present are the president Najib Tun Razak, deputy president Muhyiddin Yassin, the three vice-presidents – Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Hishamuddin Hussein and Safie Apdal – secretary-general Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor and information chief Ahmad Maslan.

The agenda is then communicated to Utusan Malaysia’s editor-in-chief via the prime minister’s office. The paper will run an issue for three days before dropping it completely unless it receives strong public support from top BN ministers.

It’s a clever strategy because by the third day the other media would have snapped it up to continue milking it, which would leave Utusan Malaysia free to start the ball rolling on another issue.

But this strategy has come at a price. Utusan Malaysia’s circulation figures are steadily declining and the paper has reportedly been suffering losses of up to RM20 million since 2009. Figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation showed that paper’s daily sales have shrank 20% between June 2006 and June 2010.

“Some 50% of Utusan’s sales are government-sponsored,” Hata said. “Thirty-six government ministries subscribe to Utusan and the government spends up to RM50 million annually on advertisements. These are Utusan’s only profits because most organisations are reluctant to advertise.”

As of June 2010, Utusan Malaysia recorded an average sale of 170,558 copies, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation. Of the number, between 70,000 and 80,000 copies are distributed to newspaper vendors daily, but Hata claimed that nearly half of these are returned at the end of the day.

The highest number of unsold copies are in Kuala Lumpur.

Hata said that many vendors are also uncomfortable with Utusan Malaysia’s front page stories and either conceal the paper behind other publications or hide it under their tables.

“I live in Puchong and of the 15 newspapers vendors, only one carries Utusan,” Hata said. “Most non-Muslim vendors are more comfortable displaying Berita Harian which carries Utusan’s main story on later pages and on a smaller scale.”

“Even some Umno division leaders have admitted their discomfort with Utusan’s extremist stand because they have to answer to their multi-racial constituents. But the political bureau is unconcerned. All it wants is for Utusan to retain the support of the rural Malay loyalists which it is doing very well.”


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