Why licensing publications is undemocratic

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Executive intervention in the media strengthens the suspicion that the BN government doesn’t take kindly to criticism from various quarters, notes Mustafa K Anuar.

Harakah, Suara Keadilan and The Rocket, the party organs of Pas, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and Democratic Action Party (DAP) respectively encountered problems with the Home Ministry over the issue of permits for their publications. These publications were said to have operated without valid publishing permits required by law, and consequently the Ministry issued them show-cause letters.

The grave outcome is that the publication of these party organs was delayed, causing difficulties to the respective parties: think of the costs incurred as a result of the halt in publications, the interrupted communication between the parties and their readers, both members and the larger public.

Home Ministry officials argued that the delay in issuing the permits was not deliberate; instead it was apparently caused by the Herculean task of going through more than 300 permit applications every month and vetting the previous one-year publications of each applicant to ensure that the publications had not violated any provision of the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA).

If that was the case, then sceptics would say that it is a problem that the Ministry should sort out, and solve quickly and not let it affect other parties. Besides, if these publications had been editorially and politically kosher throughout the entire duration of the permit, why would the Ministry officials then need to vet them again prior to issuing the permits?

Like other political parties in Malaysia (such as Umno, MCA and MIC), Pas, DAP and PKR too have the democratic right to spread their respective ideologies, ideas and policy statements to the public. Party organs are even more crucial for opposition parties given the fact they are often not given (enough) space by the mainstream media, which are largely owned by the ruling group.

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As we are all aware, even if the opposition politicians and parties do appear in the mainstream media, they often are depicted in a negative light and portrayed as squabbling partners in Pakatan Rakyat – as if there is no friction or tension within the ruling BN coalition.

Robbed of their right

Another grim implication of this permit denial is that ordinary Malaysians are robbed of their democratic right to have access to information and ideas from a broad spectrum of the political parties that exist in the country. To be sure, Malaysians have (or should have) the right to make an informed choice when it comes to voting a political party into power.

Equally undemocratic is the stipulation from the Home Ministry that the distribution and sales of the party organs be restricted to party members only. This would violate the democratic right of members of the public to gain access to the publications, ideas, political philosophies of the political parties concerned.

Yet another severe implication is that the party organs are not given the right to defend themselves in the face of accusations that they have made editorial or journalistic errors. If it is true that they indeed have made a horrible mistake (such as defamation), they then should be brought to court where truth and justice can be achieved.

It doesn’t serve the cause of justice and democracy when the party organs have been bludgeoned by the Home Minister via the refusal to issue a publishing permit for a matter that requires a settlement in court. It means the executive has interfered with what could have been a judicial process.

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Such executive intervention strengthens the suspicion that the BN government doesn’t take kindly to criticisms from various quarters of society despite its purported willingness to listen to the rakyat.

One important lesson from this sordid episode is that the PPPA is archaic and irrelevant to modern times – an insult to intellectual decency, democracy and justice.

What should be put in place instead is a Freedom of Information Act as has been done by the Selangor state government recently, a step that goes a long way towards democratising communication. This is a concrete way of helping to make a reality out of mere slogans of transparency, accountability and good governance.

Mustafa K Anuar is assistant secretary of Aliran.

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