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Thursday, December 18, 2014
- Despite a wave of reforms washing over the country, the Malaysian government-controlled media remains muzzled, mostly because ruling elites fear a free press will erode their iron grip on society.
All print, electronic and radio media are, in one form or another, controlled by the ruling National Front, which buttresses its hold with a repressive publication law that activists say should be repealed.
Online and social media and blogs, on the other hand, are thriving, as people reject mainstream news sources as biased mouthpieces of the regime.
As a result, the new government proposal to set up a Media Council, designed to monitor online and offline media and its practitioners, has run into stiff opposition.
There is deep suspicion that the proposed Council, over which the Attorney General has held several rounds of discussions with selected editors, would simply add another layer of control in an already heavily regulated industry, where the government is omnipresent and single-handedly directs the national news agenda.
“The proposed Media Council would only curtail media freedom further instead of liberating it,” said Masjaliza Hamzah, executive director of the Centre for Independent Journalism.
“As long as the PPPA (the Printing Presses and Publications Act) is not repealed, journalism here will not be free or independent,” she told a press forum here on Jun. 1
Prime Minister Najib Razak has proposed an amendment to the PPPA that will remove the Home Minister’s absolute authority to grant and withhold printing licenses, but only in return for the formation of the self-regulatory Media Council to oversee the industry.
Editors and leading journalist are wary of any such initiative coming from the government, which, they see as the primary threat to press freedom.
‘Cosmetic changes’Though real social reforms have recently taken root – like the repeal of laws allowing for detention without trial, the arrest and jailing of political opponents and the banning of public protest – activists say only “cosmetic changes” to media laws have been introduced thus far.
The PPPA, first introduced to counter a communist insurgency, has, for years, required all newspapers and printing presses to obtain an annual publishing licence.
The law was revised in 1971, after the race riots of 1969, to ensure that ‘racial sensitivities’ would not be provoked by inflammatory reporting.
The government was handed sweeping powers to revoke licences of newspapers that were seen to be aggravating national sensitivities or publishing material considered ‘detrimental to national development goals’.
The Act was amended in 1984 to grant more power to the government to seize or revoke printing press or publication licences at will.
In its current form today, the law gives the Home Minister absolute authority to grant and refuse licences. The amended Act not only regulates the press and local publications, but also books, pamphlets and the import of publications from abroad.
The possible reasons for a ban are extensive but vaguely defined, covering any publication going against so-called ‘national interests’.
Universiti Teknologi Petronas (UTP) professor Ahmad Murad Merican said a Media Council to regulate the industry is a good idea, but it should not have been initiated by the government.
“It is best if the idea comes from the press fraternity and not the government,” said Ahmad Murad, a senior lecturer in communications.
It should be established as a statutory body through a Private Members Bill and funded by Parliament; furthermore the PPPA should be repealed, he said.
He added such a council should be led by a retired judge and should consist of eminent members of society who are also independent of the authorities.
The idea for the Media Council was first mooted in the 1970s but had always been rejected by industry players who saw it as a government initiative to further choke press freedom.
Malaysiakini, a successful online news website with a large following, has already opened a court case to force the government to issue a publishing licence for a newspaper that it intends to publish.
Members of the political opposition and the election monitoring group Bersih also want equal access to media in the run-up to general elections, that many expect to take place at the end of the year.
In a last desperate attempt to expose the extent of government suppression of the media here, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim pointed out that even the repressive regime in Myanmar allowed democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi equal access to address the country on national television.
“Why not in Malaysia?” he asked. “We less claim we are less repressive but we don’t allow equal access,” he said.
Gobind Rudra, a correspondent with the news website Free Malaysia Today, declared on May 29 that the embryonic idea for the Media Council is actually a government plan to restrict press freedom.
“A new regime of media control is taking shape and journalists are being co-opted into this process by being part of the government’s consultations…on how to control, whom to control, and (whom) to punish,” he said.