‘The Best Form of Jihad Is to Tell a Word of Truth’

Islam helps inspire Southeast Asian journalists to fight for press freedoms.

Former Malaysian prime minister and winning opposition candidate Mahathir Mohamad (L) speaks to journalists during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on May 10, 2018. (ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Former Malaysian prime minister and winning opposition candidate Mahathir Mohamad (L) speaks to journalists during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on May 10, 2018. (ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

This has been a bleak year for independent media. U.S. President Donald Trump consistently attacks journalists as purveyors of “fake news” and “the enemies of the American people.”  Illiberal democracies in Poland and Hungary have undermined traditional media outlets, and authoritarian regimes in Turkey and Venezuela have used political and social unrest as justification for crackdowns on independent news organizations.

In this otherwise gloomy picture, there is one unexpected bright spot: Malaysia, a  country that has for the past 16 years been consistently rated as “not free” by Freedom House in its annual Freedom of the Press report.

All of that changed with the general election on May 9, when the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has led Malaysian governments since independence, was swept out of office by an unlikely coalition calling itself the Alliance of Hope (Pakatan Harapan). The extraordinary victory has brought with it the promise of reform in the Muslim-majority country —yet the coalition is led by former UMNO Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who was responsible both for the arrest of his then-deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, on trumped-up charges of sodomy in 1998, and for a major clampdown on the press in 1987. The new Parliament was seated on July 16, and Malaysia has a new government for the first time in over 60 years.

Malaysia is not a secular society, and the coalition that won the election is not a “liberal” one. Yet this new government, headed by Mahathir and with Anwar in place as de facto prime minister-in-waiting, has promised to repeal draconian laws that shackle the press. That could set a model for other states in Southeast Asia, and perhaps elsewhere in the Muslim world, too.

In doing research for my book Mediating Islam: Cosmopolitan Journalisms in Muslim Southeast Asia, I learned that there are ways of supporting independent media other than the liberal one with which we are familiar—including that which I have described as an “Islamic idiom.”

One of the five publications I analyzed was Harakah, the newspaper of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (Parti Islam se-Malaysia). The party is distantly related to the Muslim Brotherhood and supports the creation of an Islamic state. For years, the party’s newspaper and website were edited by Ahmad Lutfi Othman and Zulkifli Sulong, two unabashed champions of press freedom. Mostly from the “professional” or reform wing of the party (as opposed to the ulama faction of religious scholars), the journalists and editors I knew left the Islamic party in 2015 to help form a splinter party called Amanah, which was part of the coalition that won the Malaysian general election on May 9.

Although the five publications I examined—two in Malaysia and three in Indonesia— are completely different in political orientation, there are also similarities in the ways in which the Muslim journalists who work there think about the meaning of their work. Universal principles of journalism, such as truth, balance, verification, and independence from power, can be explained and validated in Islamic language.

For example, in explaining the principle of verification, which is usually described in English as “check and recheck,” it was common to hear references to a well-known verse from the Quran: “O believers, if an evildoer comes to you with some news, verify it (investigate to ascertain the truth), lest you should harm others unwittingly and then regret what you have done.”

The Prophet Mohammed’s statement that “the best form of jihad is to tell a word of truth to an oppressive ruler” is also something I heard over and over from Indonesian journalists—many of whom had been involved in the pro-democracy movement that led to the 1998 resignation of President Suharto. Muslim journalists who work for Malaysia’s alternative media such as Harakah and independent news portal Malaysiakini often mentioned this passage as well, along with the sayings of the first two caliphs that the people should correct them if they deviate from the truth.

The alternative press in Malaysia was crucial in exposing the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) investment fund scandal. Malaysiakini reported extensively on the billion-dollar 1MDB scandal, which suggested a mind-boggling level of political corruption directly connected to the former prime minister, Najib Razak, whose own growing authoritarianism before he was swept out of office was connected to protection of his own corruption. For example, the Anti-Fake News Act, passed five weeks before the election, allowed up to six years of imprisonment and fines of up to 500,000 ringgit ($123,000) for the publication of “fake news.” Many feared the law was intended to silence opposition media by labeling as “fake” any reporting on the 1MDB scandal.

Although the Wall Street Journal earned recognition as a Pulitzer Prize finalist for reporting that hundreds of millions of dollars from the government-backed fund were deposited in the prime minister’s accounts to secure victory in the 2013 general election, these developments received little coverage in Malaysia other than in online media. Instead, the politically connected mainstream press published only the government’s denials—along with its threats to sue or shut down its critics. Reports in Malaysiakini and other online news portals, widely read and shared on social media, were thus critical in helping turn out the vote against the UMNO-led coalition’s corruption.

So, what’s next for Malaysian journalists?  Before the election, coalition leaders promised that if Alliance of Hope won, it would review all laws and regulations restricting the media. The new communications and multimedia minister, Gobind Singh Deo, has said that the government will create a media council, although it is not yet clear how members would be chosen. Civil society groups have also spoken up, telling the new prime minister that it is not enough to “redefine” the Anti-Fake News Act, but that it must be repealed altogether—along with other laws that repress media freedom, including the Sedition Act and the Printing Presses and Publication Act.

In the neighboring majority-Muslim country of Indonesia, it was an unlikely coalition of journalists, old-school political elites, and forward-looking civil society groups that led to the historic passage of the 1999 press law that institutionalized press freedom and paved the way to real and lasting reform.

In a world in which Islam is often seen as opposed to democracy and pluralism, it is important to recognize that Muslim journalists like those in Indonesia and Malaysia, many of whom are neither liberal nor secular, are also fighting for justice, exposing corruption, and defending the rights of the weak. The path may be different, but the goal is the same.


Janet Steele is associate professor at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs and author of Wars Within: The Story of Tempo, an Independent Magazine in Soeharto's Indonesia (Jakarta: Equinox Publishing and the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies, 2005).