Life of a ‘recalcitrant’ journalist

Journalism can never be silent: That is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air.  

Henry Anatole Grunworld

The life of an investigative reporter is not a bed of roses.
Recently, a Malaysian journalist Sean Augustin was called up by the police after he wrote an article about an altercation between the army and a government agency.

A Free Malaysia Today (FMT) writer, Sean’s report on December 21 headlined ‘Fed up of waiting’, had ruffled a few feathers. Apparently, he had suggested the National Disaster Management Agency (NADMA) were slow to act when floods hit the Malayan peninsula and affected five states. Flood victims had to wait for four days until the Armed Forces intervened and sprang into action to help. Chief of Defence Forces Gen Tan Sri Affendi Buang, whose brother-in-law is the King of Malaysia, said the army moved in when the water began to rise. Augustin wrote that Defence Ministry personnel were unhappy that NADMA was too slow to act on social media SOS messages from the victims four days earlier on December 17. It displaced over 50,000 people and claimed 46 lives.

I myself have had several encounters with the police over the last 50 years.

Once I was banned from the CID office at High Street for “breaking news” on kidnap for ransom case in 1974. Sometime in 1976, I was called up by the Special Branch for an interview at the Century Hotel in Kuala Lumpur over an article I wrote involving the communists at Gua Musang in Kelantan. It was suggested that veteran journalist Tan Sri Samad Ismail had tampered with one of my articles which glorified the communists. Even though the authorities wanted to implicate Samad, I told them I was totally responsible for the stories that appeared in the NST and not Pak Samad. Sadly, the police did not believe me and Pak Samad was detained under the Internal Security Act.

In 1986 I was a subject of police interest because I arranged for an interview with renowned Swiss environmentalist Bruno Manser — who had a US$50,000 reward on his head. This “love-hate” relationship I had with the police had been exacerbated because the police had no clue where he was hiding. My association with Manser attracted the attention of a British investigative reporter, Clare Rewcastle-Brown, the sister-in-law of British prime minister Gordon Brown. I first met Kuching-born Clare, the daughter of Sarawak Colonial Special Branch (SB) officer DSP John Rewcastle when she arrived in Kuching to attend a seminar in 2009. At the seminar, she learnt that the nomadic Penan were up in arms due to rampant logging in the Sarawak interior. She returned to Sarawak for the Lubok Antu by-election the following year and managed to interview opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim on the issue. After the interview, she left Kuching for Kota Kinabalu, and was tailed by the Special Branch. On transit in Miri, she called me for help. I contacted Tan Sri Datuk Amar Dr James Masing who spoke to the police, enabling her to return to London via Kuala Lumpur without any hassle. A year later, during a visit to London, she returned the favour. Clare and her family welcomed me at Heathrow and we went off to a pub just opposite Buckingham Palace where Clare, her husband Andrew and I shared a bottle of red wine. But days later, I was in trouble for associating with her and if not for the chief minister’s intervention, I would have been in hot soup!

Clare subsequently formed the London-based NGO Sarawak Report and Radio Free Sarawak which reported on the welfare of indigenous people followed by an exposé on corruption scandals in Sarawak and Malaysia in general. One of Clare’s reporters was former Sarawak Tribune sub-editor Lester Melanyi. But Lester did not last long in London and returned to Kuching to try to secure a job to feed his family. Sadly, there was no one who was willing to help because he was in the bad books of the authorities.

To top that, Lester was well-connected because his older sister was married to a senior Special Branch officer. Lester died pennilessly and as I reflected on our small community of journalists, I realise that we are one of the most misunderstood people.

Twenty years ago, I suggested that Sarawak should start a Sarawak Union of Journalists to look after their own interests. Sadly, the suggestion was shot down. One of the saddest cases occurred several years ago when a poorly-paid Tribune cameraman the late TH Lu succumbed to cancer, leaving his young family to fend for themselves. Even as we continued to be Sarawak’s mouthpiece, I often asked myself does society really care? Hopefully, the government will look at ways at improving the welfare of our long-forgotten journalists.

The views expressed here are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune.

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