ON 16 Jan 2009, during the Kuala Terengganu (KT) by-election, more than a dozen journalists were asked to list their names, organisations, and telephone numbers on a blank piece of paper. The request was made by a staff member at the KT by-election media centre. At around 3.50pm on the same day, each of the journalists was given a white envelope containing six RM50 notes.
A number of journalists later returned the envelopes to the media centre staff. Two journalists from Chinese-language online news portal Merdeka Review immediately lodged a police report at the Terengganu police headquarters. In their police reports, they provided the name of the media centre staff who distributed the white envelope. They were later informed that the case would be referred to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) for investigation.
After this incident, I submitted a question to Parliament, seeking an answer from either the prime minister or information minister. My question was worded thus:
Puan Teo Nie Ching [Serdang] minta Perdana Menteri menyatakan atas arahan siapa pegawai bertugas memberi sampul surat yang mengandungi RM300 kepada wartawan-wartawan di pusat media Kuala Terengganu pada 16 Januari 2009 dan apakah tindakan/siasatan yang telah ataupun akan diambil ke atas insiden ini.
I had requested for my question to be answered on 17 Feb 2009. However, I was informed by the secretary of the Dewan Rakyat that my question was rejected on grounds that it violated Rule 23(1)(c) of the Standing Orders:
A question shall not contain any argument, interference, opinion, epithet or misleading, ironical or offensive expression nor shall a question be frivolous or be asked seeking information on trivial matters.
Until now I still can’t figure out how or why my question breached Rule 23(1)(c) of the Standing Orders. Does my question contain any argument, interference, opinion or epithet? Or is this a frivolous or trivial matter? Or perhaps, the minister simply found my question too offensive to answer.
The information minister through his press secretary Hisham Abdul Hamid has denied making any payment to journalists covering the by-election. He claims the ministry had never directed any of its officers to do such a thing.
Where did the money come from?
However, when questioned about the source of the money, the media centre staff could not offer any answers. Why? Did the envelopes just fall down from a tree like durians? Did the staff suddenly decide to play Santa Claus after waking up that fine morning?
Information Minister Datuk Ahmad Shabery Cheek boasted in Oct 2008 that Malaysia did not practise “envelope” journalism — a norm in certain developing countries where journalists are paid to highlight certain stories. In less than three months, Shabery was proved wrong in the KT by-election media centre.
It is easy to still preserve the accuracy of his statement and to clear the name of the ministry. What he needs to do is simply take the initiative to investigate the matter and tell us who instructed the staff to offer the envelopes to the journalists.
It is equally important for him to prove that the Barisan Nasional (BN) government is all out to fight corruption and that the prime minister is not the only person apparently concerned about this. The information minister should immediately sack the media centre staff and the individual(s) who instructed the staff to give out the envelopes. Sadly, none of this has been done.
It is also sad that the MACC on 20 Jan 2009 decided not to investigate the case because it said the reporters could not identify the media centre staff.
What is so difficult about identifying the staff member implicated?
This is such a lame excuse. The reporters from Merdeka Review had provided the name of the staff. Furthermore, there were more than a dozen journalists in the media centre that day. What is so difficult about identifying the staff?
Did the MACC call the rest of the journalists and investigate to the best of its ability before concluding that the culprit could not be identified? There is a suspicious lack of initiative on the part of the MACC to respond to what was clearly an attempt to bribe journalists covering the by-election. This is totally unacceptable.
People are smarter
Voters in KT were apparently not influenced by these dirty tricks and the Pakatan Rakyat won the by-election with a 2,631-vote majority. This does not prove that there were no attempts to bribe voters and journalists in KT. It just shows that people are cleverer these days and bribes like the one attempted in the by-election media centre were not successful.
The approaches adopted by the information ministry and MACC make a mockery of the so-called reforms towards a corrupt-free society belatedly announced by the prime minister. It further shows that the BN government is only paying lip service to the principle of honesty and the battle to fight corruption.
Even though the KT by-election is now over, it is important to ensure that real actions are taken against the dirty trick that occurred in the media centre. To demonstrate zero tolerance towards corruption, the information minister should assure the public that serious action will be taken against the media centre staff. Additionally, he should guarantee that such an incident will not repeat during the upcoming by-elections in Bukit Gantang, Bukit Selambau and Batang Ai.
Without this assurance, the battle against corruption will ring hollow and false.