Letter warns weekly of potential ‘sterner actions;’ suspension possible.
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, August 21 (Compass Direct News) – The Ministry of Home Affairs has issued a warning letter to a Catholic weekly demanding an explanation for articles that did not “focus” on religion and for a report that allegedly degraded Islam entitled, “America and Jihad – where do they stand?”
Father Lawrence Andrew, editor of the Herald, revealed on August 10 that the ministry had issued the “show-cause” letter accusing the newspaper of breaking publication rules on July 16.
In an article on August 14, the Sun quoted Minister of Home Affairs Syed Hamid Albar as restricting religious writing to “questions on rituals, adherence to God, followers and anything related to your divine mission.” Despite his apparently broad definition, the minister said mixing religion with politics “can create a lot of misunderstandings.”
The ministry’s letter reportedly warned that it “would not hesitate to take sterner action” if the Herald repeats its alleged offenses. According to The Associated Press (AP), an unnamed ministry official on August 11 said the Herald must explain satisfactorily why it ran the articles and pledge to stick by the rules or risk suspension.
Fr. Andrew told Compass the letter did not specify exactly what the “sterner actions” would be. He has yet to reply to the ministry, since the letter did not specify a date by which the newspaper had to respond.
The letter is the latest in a series that the ministry has issued to the publisher this year. Prior to the show-cause letter, the publisher had received two other “advisory” and “cautionary” letters from the ministry for publishing on current affairs and politics and for allegedly denigrating Islam.
The Herald is a multilingual newspaper published by the Catholic Church of Malaysia with a circulation of 13,000 and an estimated readership of 50,000. The publication is sold in churches and is not available from newsstands.
In his editorial in the latest edition of the Herald (August 17), Fr. Andrew highlighted the upcoming Permatang Pauh by-election, which he called a “serious” election since the outcome would determine the direction of the country for the next four years and beyond. He urged readers to pray that God may grant courage and wisdom to the voters to “choose a suitable and trustworthy candidate.”
The editorial makes no mention of Anwar Ibrahim, adviser to the People’s Justice Party, who is trying to make a comeback to Parliament in the election.
In anticipation of this editorial, a ministry official was quoted in the Star on August 13 as saying the then-yet to be published editorial could earn the Herald another warning letter and possibly suspension.
Defense of Newspaper
The Herald maintains it has not overstepped its boundaries.
According to the AP story of August 11, Fr. Andrew defended the Herald’s stance by saying it is “normal for [Christians] to have an ethical interpretation of current events and politics.”
In an editorial in the August 10 edition of the weekly, the editor added that in response to a previous letter from the ministry, he had informed it that no definition of religion was provided in the application form for renewing its printing permit, and that neither is there a definition of religion in the Federal Constitution. He asked the ministry to point out where the newspaper had gone wrong but has yet to receive a reply.
Bishop Paul Tan Chee Ing, chairman of the Christian Federation of Malaysia, said in an August 15 statement that the letters were “unjustified and an infringement of the right to circulate news within one’s own religious community – a right guaranteed under our Federal Constitution (Article 11).” He called on the ministry to unconditionally withdraw the letters.
“Christians believe that all of life – in its political, economic, social, cultural and religious aspects – come under the sovereignty of God,” he said, and therefore it is necessary to write on such matters to educate Christians to discern God’s will and purpose.
The Catholic Lawyers’ Society issued a statement on Saturday (August 18) in support of the Herald. The society’s president, Mabel Sabastian, called on the ministry to withdraw its letters and maintain the Herald’s publishing permit.
Sabastian argued that “interpretation of what constitutes religious matters should be left to the leaders and adherents of the faith,” and that the government ministry “is not in a position to dictate to Catholics the scope of their religion.”
The Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) reportedly expressed concern over the possible suspension of the Herald, saying it would be deemed as an infringement on freedom of expression.
Late last year, the government issued a series of warnings to the Herald trying to prohibit the publisher from using the word “Allah” in referring to God in the Malay language section of its multilingual newspaper. The government feared use of the word would cause confusion among the country’s majority-Muslim population.
The publisher, however, maintained that it had a right to use the word and has sued the government over the issue. The lawsuit is pending hearing in the courts.
Report from Compass Direct News