Malaysian Newspaper Apologizes for Statements Against Australian Senator

Malaysia - Australia has raised concerns about an article in Malaysia’s government-owned New Straits Times broadsheet – one of the oldest in the country – which has incorrectly labeled statements critical of Islam to an Australian senator.

Nick Xenophon, an independent parliamentarian representing South Australia, was in Malaysia in late April– on the invitation of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim – as part of a fact-finding mission on the upcoming Malaysian elections. He was also an independent observer at Saturday’s Bersih rally.

On Wednesday, an article in the New Straits Times said Mr. Xenophon was “critical of Islam”. The paper, however, used a speech Mr. Xenophon gave in Parliament critical of Scientology, appearing to replace the words “scientology” with “Islam” in its article.

A spokesperson from the department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra said the ministry was “concerned and disappointed by a misleading media report” that incorrectly quoted the Senator, and said they had raised those concerns with the editors of the New Straits Times.

Late Thursday afternoon, managing editor Abdul Jalil Hamid of the New Straits Times Press group, the conglomerate responsible for the printing the paper, apologized for the article, saying in a statement: “we regret that the article attributes certain statements to Mr. Xenophon, particularly the use of the word “Islam” which he did not make in a parliamentary speech in November 2009”.

“We truly and sincerely regret that Mr Xenophon has suffered any distress and embarrassment arising from the article and we honestly believe that [the] steps we are taking to make amends will resolve the matter,” he continued.

The New Straits Times article said Mr. Xenophon had “come under scrutiny” and questioned his neutrality in observing Malaysia’s elections; quoting him as saying: “Islam is not a religious organisation. It is a criminal organisation that hides behind so-called religious beliefs” in a 2009 speech to Parliament.

But Hansard – the official record of the Australian parliament – recorded him as saying: “Scientology is not a religious organisation. It is a criminal organisation that hides behind its so-called religious beliefs.”

“It is a vile defamation,” said Mr. Xenophon in a phone interview. “Islam is not mentioned at all in the speech, and it is not at all representative of my views. I am shocked and sickened.” He plans to take legal action against the newspaper.

As of Thursday afternoon, the article was removed from the website’s online pages.

The New Straits Times article also suggested Mr. Xenophon supported same-sex marriage, as – touching upon it briefly in his speech – he did not oppose it. A Malaysian Member of Parliament, Zahrain Mohamed Hashim, was quoted in report saying: “Should we let someone like Xenophon influence our culture and moral values through politics?”

Mr. Xenophon, who has travelled to Malaysia three times in the past two years, said he had “great regard” for the country, and was “very upset” by the article. A close observer of opposition Anwar Ibrahim’s sodomy trials over the past decade, Mr. Xenophon was part of the International Observer Group in Kuala Lumpur this weekend, joined by a journalist and academics from India and Indonesia, among others.

An observer of the Bersih rally demanding clean elections, he was critical of the way authorities handled the protestors – singling out heavy-handed police treatment in firing tear gas and water cannons on demonstrators, and “biased” media coverage.

“I think the media coverage, the official media if you like, has been completely biased and unfair from what I observed on the ground,” said Mr. Xenophon at a press conference on Sunday. “We spent more time seeing Prime Minister Najib [on television reports] having a cup of tea and banana fritters in Sabah, rather than [footage from] one of the biggest and most significant political expression in Malaysian history.” The rally was attended by approximately 50, 000.

Mr. Xenophon has also called for an independent inquiry in relation to the violence around Saturday’s Bersih demonstration.

An estimated 75 people were injured, including 13 members of the police force, with over 500 arrested when demonstrators broke barricades preventing them from demonstrating in Kuala Lumpur’s historic Merdeka Square. All were subsequently released on Sunday morning, though police today released photographs of 49 “wanted” individuals over their conduct during the rally.

Speaking on Thursday, the Senator said the recent article was an example of how the press has been used to “vilify” opposition leaders in the past, including Mr. Anwar.