On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, civil society groups in Malaysia have come up with a memorandum stating that Malaysians are demanding greater media freedom.
The world’s bottom 30 per cent in Press Freedom
Malaysia is not only trapped in the middle-income group, but also in the world’s bottom 30% of countries in respect of press freedom. In the Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press world ranking exercise released annually before the World Press Freedom Day, Malaysia’s record in the past eight years is simply appalling: 71st/100 countries surveyed (2003), 154th/193 (2004), 152nd/194 (2005), 141st/194 (2006), 150th/195 (2008), 143rd/195 (2009) and 142nd/196 (2010). Even amongst Asean countries, we trail far behind East Timor, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and even Cambodia – all poorer than Malaysia.
Eight major violations of press freedom in past 12 months
We, the undersigned civil society groups and individual citizens call upon all Malaysians, especially the Najib Razak administration and media practitioners, to reflect on the following eight major violations of press freedom since the last World Press Freedom Day, either by direct interference of state or non-state actors, or self-censorship by media organisations:
1. Axing of a TV2 documentary related to Bakun Dam
28 April 2010 – State broadcaster Radio Television Malaysia’s Broadcasting Director-General Ibrahim Yahya directly instructed a Chinese-language documentary series “Galeri Mandarin Nasional” for TV2 to be taken off air after only two episodes. The 10-episode documentary series exposes the plight of more than 10,000 natives of Belaga, Sarawak, after their forced relocation to Sungai Asap and Sungai Koyan in 1998 owing to the construction of Bakun Dam. The documentary producer Chow reveals that his superior claimed that some “sensitive elements” in the documentary could be harmful to the Sibu parliamentary by-election to be held on May 16 and the upcoming Sarawak state election.
2. Interference and censorship on NTV7 talk show “Editor’s Time”
20 April 2010 – Joshua Wong Ngee Chong, award-winning producer for NTV7’s Chinese-language talk show “Editor’s Time” resigned in protest of self-censorship by the private television channel in the face of alleged pressure from the Prime Minister’s wife Rosmah Mansur. Rosmah allegedly forwarded to NTV7’s senior management some text messages which accused as racist the talk show’s earlier episodes, that featured debates between politicians from the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional and the opposition Pakatan Rakyat as well as independent commentators. Following such complaints, NTV7 decided that the talk show would not cover the Hulu Selangor parliamentary by-election on April 25 and political issues in general; nor would it invite opposition politicians as guests. Wong’s accusation was not denied by the NTV7 management in their response to his resignation. The alleged interference by Rosmah was completely blacked out by all mainstream media. In fact, among the mainstream newspapers, only “Nanyang Siang Pau” and “Oriental Daily” reported Wong’s resignation.
3. “Inaccurate report” by “China Press” on IGP’s resignation
13 March 2010 – The Home Ministry issued a show-cause letter to Chinese-language daily “China Press” for ‘misreporting’ the resignation of the Inspector-General of Police Musa Hassan on March 25. Under Section 8A of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 (Act 301), if convicted for publishing false news, offenders are liable to be jailed not more than three years or fined not exceeding RM20,000 or both. The Home Minister Hishamuddin Hussein – whose jurisdiction covers both the police and newspapers – did confirm that Musa Hassan’s service would end in September. On March 19, “China Press” apologised for its “inaccurate report” and suspended its editor-in-chief Teoh Yong Khoon for two weeks over the incident.
4. Silencing criticism on whipping of women
24 February 2010 – Following police reports lodged by a few non-governmental groups, English daily “The Star” publicly apologised for a column by its Managing Editor P. Gunasegaran on February 19 titled “Persuasion, not compulsion” which criticised the whipping of three Muslim women for illicit sex. Claiming that apology was not sufficient, Selangor Islamic Religious Council (MAIS) lodged a report on February 25 against Gunasegaran and non-governmental organisation Sisters in Islam (SIS) for ‘denigrating’ Islam and the Syariah law. In subsequent developments, the Home Ministry issued a show-cause letter to “The Star”, which then spiked a column by Marina Mahathir, the daughter of former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad and a supporter of SIS, on the whipping issue.
5. New publication guidelines for newspapers
17 December 2009 – Malaysiakini reported that a meeting was called by the Home Ministry with newspaper editors to discuss the adoption of a new set of publishing guidelines. The elaborate but ambiguously worded guidelines were framed as “self-regulation”. The newspapers were reportedly instructed not to cover news related to cohabitation, adultery, homosexuality, counter-culture; and no graphics of human genitalia and G-strings.
6. MCMC’s harassment of Malaysiakini over cow-head protests
3 September 2009 – The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) demanded online news portal Malaysiakini to take down two video clips related to an intimidating protest against the relocation of a temple in Shah Alam. One of the video clips was the footage of a press conference on September 2 held by Home Minister Hishamuddin Hussein, who defended the protesters. MCMC’s Monitoring and Enforcement Division Senior Acting Director Abdul Halim Ahmad said that the videos contained offensive contents with the intent to annoy the Indian community. On September 8, MCMC grilled 10 staff members of Malaysiakini for a total of eight hours.
7. Confiscation of books
25 August 2009 – Officials from the Control of Publication Department of the Ministry of Home Affairs seized 408 copies of the inaugural issues of “Gedung Kartun” (Cartoon Store) from the publisher’s office in Kuala Lumpur. The magazine, published by famous political cartoonist Zunar, poked fun at Prime Minister Najib Razak’s alleged connection with the murder of Mongolian interpreter-cum-model Altantuya Sharibu. The Department’s Assistant Secretary Abdul Razak Abdul Latif said the magazine was confiscated “primarily” due to the lack of a publication permit as well as for content “checking”.
24 December 2009 – Copies of “Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times” were confiscated from the Port Klang checkpoint, amounting to an effective ban which was lifted only in late April 2010, with no explanation offered for the lengthy inspection. Written by Asian Wall Street Journal former editor Barry Wain, the book contends that the fourth prime minister was responsible for losses of RM100 billion during his term in office.
January 29, 2010 – A total of 64 copies of two books – “Where Is Justice” and “1Funny Malaysia” – published by Malaysiakini were confiscated from two retailers in Penang and Malacca. The first book questions the police and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission for cases of death in custody, while “1Funny Malaysia” is a collection of political cartoons by Zunar.
8. Transfer of NTV7’s talk show “Point of view” host Florence Looi
July 15, 2009 – Online news portal Merdeka Review reported that private television channel NTV7 issued a memo to Florence Looi, the host and producer for an English talk show “Point of View”after asking her guests to rate the performance of Prime Minister Najib Razak in his first 100 days in office. The programme was aired last on July 5, after which she was re-assigned to field reporting.
While suppression of media freedom is often justified in the name of preserving inter-ethnic or inter-religious harmony by the Malaysian state, such action is often highly selective that certain quarters, including Umno-owned Malay-language daily Utusan Malaysia and a magazine, Al-Islam, were exempted from being reprimanded for provocative, offensive or unprofessional practice.
The perils of media control
Media freedom is protected by the Federal Constitution under Article 10(1)(a) for good reason, such that the violations of media freedom listed above have led to four severe consequences.
Firstly, by disempowering the media as the fourth estate, it disallows the public to scrutinize the state and promote good governance.
Secondly, by suppressing – often selectively – public discussions on the so-called sensitive issues, it prevents Malaysians of different ethno-religious, cultural, linguistic and socio-economic background from attaining true mutual understanding and real harmony.
Thirdly, by covering up injustices and disharmony, it marginalises further the usual victims – women, indigenous tribes, the urban and rural poor, sexual minorities and other vulnerable groups – preventing them from being heard and empowered. The silenced 10,000 members of the Belaga community in the axing of TV2’s “Galeri Mandarin Nasional” is a case in point.
Fourthly, silencing citizens in general curbs the creativity and dynamism Malaysians need so much to upgrade the country’s economy and break away from the middle-income trap.
These perils are caused by both political intervention by state and non-state actors, and self-censorship by media practitioners, thanks not least to draconian and anti-competitive media laws such as Printing Presses and Publications Act, Communications and Multimedia Act, Official Secrets Act and Internal Security Act.
We, the undersigned groups and individual citizens, demand the following actions to be taken before the next World Press Freedom Day, 3 May 2011:
1. That a Royal Commission of Inquiry or Parliamentary Select Committee be formed to study and recommend thorough media law reform so that
a. there will be minimum entry barrier for print, broadcasting and Internet media to ensure plural ownership within and across media streams;
b. all political censorship mechanisms will be abolished and replaced by genuinely autonomous bodies consisting of representatives of media practitioners and civil society.
2. That the Federal, State and Local Governments defend journalists and citizens exercising freedom of expression and freedom of information from intimidation by non-state actors, and restrain from exploiting the existing laws – while they are being reviewed – to curb media freedom.
3. That the media practitioners uphold professionalism and media freedom instead of practising self-censorship.
In the immediate short run, we demand by the end of the month for:
1. An explanation by NTV7 and TV2 on the latest incidents of alleged censorship.
2. An unequivocal assurance from the Prime Minister that no one in his administration or family will undermine media practitioners’ professional judgement in the choice of topics, angles and news sources.
1.Writers Alliance for Media Independence (WAMI)
2.Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ)
3.Civil Rights Committee of KL & Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall (CRC-KLSCAH)
4.Coalition for Clean and Fair Election (BERSIH)
5.Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM)
6.Zunar & ‘Gedung Kartun’ Group
7.Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia (SABM)
8.Centre for Policy Initiatives (CPI)
9.Research for Social Advancement (REFSA)
10.New Era College Progressive Front
This memorandum will be opened for group and individual endorsement till 28 May 2010. Individual are encouraged to sign the online petition at http://www.petitiononline.com/20100430/petition.html
If you have any queries, please contact the coordinators Wai Fong (012-6986662) or Yap Hwa (012-2658448)