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Malaysian press deal a 'freedom threat'

By staff and wire reports

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Malaysia's main Chinese political party has voted to take over two newspapers, in spite of protests it will undermine press freedom.

In a move which critics say smacks of government attempts to control the media, leaders of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) have decided to press ahead with buying a 72 per cent stake in Nanyang Press Holdings.

Nanyang publishes the independent Chinese-language newspapers Nanyang Siang Pau and China Press dailies, which have a combined circulation of nearly 400,000.

But the takeover has become a highly-charged issue among Malaysia's large ethnic minority.

Critics of the deal fear editorial freedom will be lost at the papers, in a country where major newspapers are already linked to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's coalition, and local news outlets are strictly regulated.

The Chinese-language newspapers have often been critical of the MCA, which is the main partner in the coalition government.

Members of the Chinese community, fearing MCA ownership would stifle the newspapers' independent views, have staged protests against the takeover for the past few days.

'Major error'

As MCA officials began meeting Wednesday, fights broke out among supporters of both sides, about 250 of whom had gathered outside the party's headquarters.

The crowd waved banners, sang Chinese anthems and hurled insults at each other for about two hours, until Kuala Lumpur Police Chief Dell Akbar Khan ordered them to disperse.

"The takeover is a major error in the history of the MCA," said Gan Chin Wen, president of the Chinese Assembly Hall, an independent organization with members from a wide cross-section of the community.

"It may prove a high price to pay when it comes to the general elections, if the MCA neglects the general opinion of the Chinese community."

At a protest of about 300 people earlier in the day, Chinese opposition leaders were joined by Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the wife of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's jailed rival, Anwar Ibrahim.

The Penang-based social reform movement Aliran issued a statement blasting what it called the undermining of press freedom, and what it saw as a ploy to use the Chinese press to mold public opinion with the Chinese community

"Malaysians of all ethnic and religious groups should oppose this deal, which further undermines what's left of our democracy," Aliran said.

Malaysia is known for its controversial policies including its draconian Internal Security Act and other laws where people can be held without trial.

Inner opposition

The deal went ahead despite inner opposition to the move.

Some senior members of the MCA had opposed buying the two for fear it risked alienating voters.

While MCA President Ling Liong Sik told reporters the deal has been signed, he sidestepped questions such as whether all the signatories required to complete the transaction had inked the contract.

Proponents of the deal have defended it as good business.

Ethnic Chines comprise nearly 30 per cent of Malaysia's 22 million people, while the ethnic Malay majority makes up nearly 60 per cent. Relations between the Chinese and Malays have long been strained.

Ethnic Chinese repeatedly criticize the government's policy of affirmative action towards the Malays, in both education and business.

The rest of the population is made up largely of ethnic Indians.

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