Utusan Melayu Berhad, the publisher of Malay daily Utusan Malaysia, has not paid journalist salaries for nearly three months. Staff employed by Utusan are facing significant financial difficulties, with many forced to borrow the money to support themselves as the company endured yet another period of financial instability.
But in a breakthrough press conference yesterday, Utusan’s executive chairperson, Aziz Sheikh Fadzir, announced that 800 staff would be paid RM2,000 each (approx. USD479) for outstanding salaries over the past three months. NUJM Utusan branch chairperson and national president, Taufek Razak, said the payments amounting to RM1.6 million (USD 383,481) came from a donation from Malaysian political party Umno following a meeting between party leaders and Utusan's management.
The newspaper has long served as Umno's official mouthpiece in Malaysia, but Umno relinquished direct control of Utusan Malaysia after selling a 31.6 percent stake in the media company to a former Umno MP in February. In recent years, the publication has suffered from a declining circulation and become increasingly dependent on government-supported advertising for its primary income. But after Barisan Nasional (BN) and Umno were defeated in the May 9 general election in 2018, the situation became increasingly grim for the company with salary delays largely blamed on the company’s poor financial situation.
Around 100 Utusan Malaysia current and former staff held a protest on Monday, August 19 in front of Utusan’s headquarters demanding salaries owing back as far as June 2019. The same day staff were informed that management was preparing to close all publications in its group, including Utusan Malaysia and Kosmo! from August 21, indefinitely.
However, at a town hall meeting with Utusan’s staff on August 20, the company’s executive chairperson said Utusan Group would continue publication by increasing the price of newspapers. He also expected that the company’s finances could be stabilised by 2020 or 2021 if it sold some assets, increased advertising revenue and bolstered circulation.
In the press conference, Taufek Razak said: “We then had a heart-to-heart discussion. based on the result of the meeting . . So we took our decision to halt our picket as long as the management pays our salaries. Therefore we feel relieved and we will continue to help the company and prevent company from closing operations.”
It is not the first time the company has delayed the payment of wages. In September 2018, the IFJ reported staff salaries were delayed for the second consecutive month due to ‘unforeseen circumstances’.
In an attempt to remedy the financial situation, Utusan offered voluntary separation scheme (VSS) to over half of its 1,500 employees the same month. NUJM confirmed that not only were salary payments delayed, but also salary deductions, including employee provident fund (retirement fund) and union fees were not being passed on to relevant organisations amounting to more than USD 5,000. But even the voluntary separation scheme (VSS) which was to be paid to former staff in monthly instalments from December 2018 was also impacted. Outstanding payments for salary and the promised VSS scheme had reached nearly RM10 million (USD $2.39 million).
This week there have been renewed calls to return Utusan as "the people's voice instead of Umno's voice".
Umno reportedly retains an 18.17 percent stake. Umno’s largest stake in the company was sold to Opulence Asia Sdn Bhd which is owned by the Malay daily's chief executive, Abdul Aziz Sheik Fadzir. Abdul Aziz is also a former Umno MP for Kulim-Bandar Baru.
The newspaper was first published as Utusan Melayu in Jawi in Singapore in 1939. The office then moved to Kuala Lumpur in 1959. Utusan Malaysia, the Romanised version of Utusan Melayu, started publication on September 1, 1967.
The IFJ said there is a critical need to support a more independent media landscape and for the era of political intervention in Malaysia’s media must come to an end.
According to the media watchdog Geramm, “the spirit of solidarity for Utusan as expressed during a workers”organised by the NUJ Utusan branch and NUJ Malaysia should be continued” to support this end.
The IFJ said: “This is a win for Utusan’s journalist for the fundamental and basic right to be paid for the job they do with dedication and commitment. We call on Utusan to honour its commitments and work with journalists and their union NUJM to ensure all salaries are paid in full. Malaysia’s government must also hold true to its commitments on Malaysia’s media and heed the calls by journalists to support greater independence in the country’s media.”