It's been in the planning for decades. And despite being cleverly knocked on the head once by the Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Kuala Lumpur finally has its own Foreign Correspondents Club (FCCM).
The club's first president, Romen Bose of Agence France-Presse, said after the inaugural meeting was held at the Equatorial Hotel that Malaysia was experiencing something of a media renaissance.
‘The idea of a foreign correspondents club in Malaysia isn’t new in that several groups had tried over the years to get one set up, and many had gone as far as having initial meetings and an executive committee drawn up, but were unable to get permission from the authorities.
‘The last time a group of journalists tried to set one up was in 1992 when then AFP bureau chief Mervin Nambiar and a group of very senior correspondents had banded together to push for the club to be set up, but the powers that be refused to allow its formation,’ he said.
Online media is flourishing in this country and challenging a repressed mainstream press. Prime Minister Najib Razak more recently has bowed to media reports and announced an inquiry into alleged electoral irregularities, the source of violent rallies in the capital in early July.
In doing this, he conceded the government’s censorship of an article in The Economist on the Bersih protest rally was ineffective and promised to review his country’s censorship methods.
‘If the international media wants to criticise us, let them. If we need to, we engage them. We give our side of story, and if they have crossed the line, then we have to resort to legal means,’ he said.
Foreign correspondents have traditionally found this country difficult territory in which to operate and are often widely disliked by local journalists who are coerced into toeing a management line while the outsiders are free to report as they see fit. This is largely because newspaper owners require a license to publish that must be renewed each year, resulting in coverage that’s heavily self-censored and primarily used to support government policies.
‘For too long, it was an easy out to say that the foreign media were not reporting the “real story” or were “twisting facts” or were “pro-opposition” when the reality of the matter was that the government newsmakers were unwilling or unable to engage foreign correspondents to provide their side of the story,’ Bose said.
As the paperwork from previous FCC bids languished on the mahogany desks of bureaucrats, one senior journalist was once pulled aside by Mahathir. Dismayed, the then prime minister asked: ‘Why do you want to establish a Foreign Correspondents Club here when if you have any problems you can always come and talk to me personally?’
It possibly never dawned on the leader that such cosy relations between the media and the executive arm of government was considered anathema to foreign journalists, who were also disturbed by the sycophantic relations encouraged by the government and state-linked press.
Clubs elsewhere have been well established in Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand and even Cambodia for decades, and have emerged as an integral force within their local communities.
Bose said the FCCM would provide a conduit to government and opposition leaders to get their views across to the international community, and to help foreign media in Malaysia get a better and more comprehensive understanding of issues facing the country.
‘I’m heartened by the prime minister's commitment to engaging the foreign media by allowing the formation of the FCC. What we want to see now are greater steps by officials in his administration to fully utilise this new conduit to the majority of foreign correspondents in the country,’ he added.
This change in attitude is refreshing.
Najib has also shifted his country closer to the West, establishing ties with the Vatican, moving to support US sanctions against Iran, entering a deal on refugees with Australia and attempting to improve relations with their former colonizers in Britain.
But the country has also sent mixed signals to the international community in recent months, with the country’s bureaucracy deporting two lawyers.
William Bourdan, who was representing a Malaysian human rights group in a French investigation into the $1.1 billion sale of two submarines to Malaysia, was sent back to Paris after arriving here to meet with clients.
This was followed by the deportation of British lawyer Imran Khan, who had arrived here to defend a group of ethnic Indian activists who claimed they were being discriminated against. His stay lasted 12 hours.
‘Of course, the proof of the pudding will be in how the FCC will engage the government,’ Bose added. ‘What we are hoping for is a good relationship with all sides so that the FCC is seen as a foundation upon which a frank and open exchange of views and ideas can take place and where everyone develops a better understanding of the other side.’