Malaysian sex-tape scandal poses a challenge for Muslim reporters

July 19, 2019
The Putra Mosque in Putrajaya, Malaysia.

For the past six weeks, Malaysians have been mesmerized by a series of shocking sex videos. The video clips, which started circulating in journalists’ WhatsApp groups on June 11 and then went viral, depicted what the New Straits Times described as “two men frolicking in bed.” 

Within a day, Haziq Abdullah Abdul Aziz, a 27-year-old former Justice Party (PKR) youth division chief, identified himself as one of the video’s subjects. Haziq said the other man was Mohamed Azmin Ali—an economic affairs minister and PKR deputy chair who is widely considered to be a contender for the position of prime minister should 94-year-old Dr. Mahathir Mohamad ever choose to step down.

Coverage of the videos competed against the corruption trial of former Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak for headlines. “I was in bed with minister, confesses man claiming to be in viral sex clip,” read a headline in the online news portal Malaysiakini. In socially conservative Malaysia, where even the suggestion that sex education ought to be taught in schools is controversial, graphic coverage raised a few eyebrows. The country deems “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” a crime; Aziz’s confession was tantamount to asking for jail time. 

Azmin denied that he was the man in the videos, calling the incident “gutter politics” and “a nefarious plot to assassinate my reputation and character in an attempt to destroy my political career” in a statement. (Veteran journalist Zakiah Koya quipped, “In Malaysia, our children get literally educated on sex by politicians.”) The story is reminiscent of another recent scandal, in which the former deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, was sidelined not once but twice following charges of “sodomy.” The videos have led to calls for Azmin’s resignation, along with endless speculation as to who is behind their distribution. 

But there is an important aspect of the incident that has gone largely unnoticed. Malaysia is a majority Muslim country, and Islam carries strict prohibitions against defamation, backbiting, and exposing shameful secrets. Perhaps surprisingly, there is a history of reporting on sex scandals in Malaysia at publications of all political stripes—which makes balancing the needs of the news with the strictures of religion a very real challenge for many Malaysian journalists. About 61 percent of Malaysians are Muslim. Although Malaysia is not an Islamic state, Islam is the “state religion.” All Malays are required by law to be Muslim; apostasy, or leaving Islam, is forbidden. Malays are constitutionally barred from changing faith.

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Degrees of piety vary, of course, but for some Muslim journalists, the daily practice of journalism itself is in an uneasy relationship with Islam. “If there is any doubt at all about the truth of a story, however small, the story must be refused,” Ahmad Lutfi Othman, the former chief editor of the Islamic party newspaper Harakah, once put it. “And if a person comes bearing news, and if it is felt that there is a problem with that person’s character, then he must be refused. These are the teachings of the Prophet.”

“There are certain things you do as a journalist that don’t exactly jibe with what a religious person can or cannot do,” former Malaysiakini journalist Fauwaz Abdul Aziz explains. “Say that somebody is accused of a sexual impropriety. You don’t even mention that act of impropriety unless you have concrete proof.” Absent that proof, Aziz explains, reporting such an impropriety as news would carry corporal punishment, according to the Qur’an. “And all of the people in that chain of disseminating [the false story] would be punished as well.”

Politicians from the opposition All-Malaysia Islamic party PAS have pounced on this contradiction. PAS deputy chief Tuan Ibrahim called on party members and leaders not to get involved in the circulation of the viral videos; rather, they should “focus on issues that would benefit the ummah,” a reference to the Muslim community. Another PAS official told The Star that people “should not waste time on social media gossiping and spreading accusations against one another,” given the violation of Islamic law.

During a recent workshop with journalists at the state-sponsored Radio Televisyen Malaysia in Borneo, there was nervous laughter when I brought up the topic of Islam and coverage of the recent sex videos. Working as they do for a government agency, they declined to discuss this contradiction in front of their bosses. 

Back in Kuala Lumpur, The Star’s Zakiah Koya echoed Lutfi’s comment about the importance of ascertaining the character of the videos’ source. Because they have not yet been verified or their source ascertained, Koya says, she is reluctant to participate in “a media game.” “Ignoring it was never a choice,” she says. “But how to report it was.” Abdul Hafiz Mohammad Yatim of The Edge is even blunter. “Islamic jurisprudence requires at least four witnesses of repute to prove such allegations,” he says.

Journalism’s universal principles—truth, verification, and independence from power—can be pursued in accordance with Islam. For example, when journalists explain verification, which is frequently described in English as “check and recheck,” it is also common to hear references to a well-known verse from the Qur’an: “If an evildoer comes to you with some news, verify it, lest you should harm others unwittingly and then regret what you have done.” The Prophet’s statement that “the best form of jihad is to tell a word of truth to an oppressive ruler” is something I heard over and over from Indonesian journalists—many of whom were involved in the pro-democracy movement that led to the 1998 resignation of President Soeharto. Muslim journalists who work for alternative Malaysian media often mention 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 Qur’an itself admonishes Muslims not only to ascertain the truthfulness of news, but also to investigate the character of those who come bearing it. Thus, as Harakah’s Lutfi pointed out, a journalist’s use of a video recording made openly by a hotel’s own CCTV would be acceptable by Islamic standards, whereas the use of a video made in secret by someone who was intentionally trying to smear or “corner” a figure such as Azmin would not.

Malaysiakini reporter Alyaa Alhadjri, who has recently covered an alleged rape case for her paper, has not written about the videos. The story broke when she was away from work for Eid. Since her return, she has not covered the story except to rewrite pre-existing background paragraphs for her paper. 

“I don’t think anyone at Kini was forced to watch the videos in order to write about it,” she adds. “That would be the bigger challenge.”

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Janet Steele is professor of media and public affairs at the George Washington University, and the director of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication. She received her PhD in history from the Johns Hopkins University, and focuses on how culture is communicated through the mass media. Her most recent book is Mediating Islam: Cosmopolitan Journalisms in Muslim Southeast Asia.