Yesterday, 3 May, was World Press Freedom Day, an event that has been organised annually since 1993.
This is a unique opportunity to strengthen efforts in defending media freedom, promoting media reforms and upholding international human rights standards.
To mark the occasion, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) has published the Malaysian Media Landscape Brief 2021, an annual brief on the performance and challenges of the Malaysian media.
Malaysia ranked 113th in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2022 index. An improvement from the 119th ranking in 2021, it still falls short of Malaysia’s best ranking of 101st, just two years ago in 2020. This ranking is indicative of the struggling media environment in Malaysia in 2021, within the context of the Covid pandemic as well as ongoing political uncertainties.
Last year continued to be difficult for the Malaysian media. Media personnel had to deal with the repercussions of new political manoeuvrings, such as the proclamation of an emergency, the introduction of new laws, and a continued lack of political will in establishing a Malaysian media council.
There were also renewed Covid-related challenges, such as continued restrictions in covering public hearings and parliamentary proceedings, and delayed vaccinations.
Besides that, the arsenal of repressive laws at the government’s disposal continued to be used against the media and journalists to shut down critical reporting, complemented with numerous intimidation tactics and arbitrary threats, warnings and even lawsuits.
Neither was there any indication from the government of repealing or amending these laws. Several court decisions that ruled against the media last year added to the overall chilling effect as well.
The media continued to face safety and security concerns as they covered protests and elections in the ‘new normal’. Some journalists were even fined for alleged noncompliance with Covid protocol.
Notwithstanding this, whether the state fulfilled its positive duty of facilitating and ensuring a safe and enabling space for media to report on the ground is questionable.
There were positive developments, such as increased advertising revenue for the media, which helped keep media companies afloat, a significant improvement from 2020.
Nevertheless, the government’s Covid stimulus and recovery packages have yet to concretely address the dire economic impact faced by the media. Nor has the state provided short-term financial assistance such as tax incentives, short-term loans or government advertising.
In light of these trends and incidents, CIJ calls on the government to carry out the following recommendations for media reforms without further delay:
- Guarantee equal access to all media – Unfettered media access must be a guarantee – regardless of affiliation, medium of practice or geographical locations. There should be no arbitrary or discriminatory restrictions of media access to government press conferences, events, elections, public hearings, courts, Parliament and state assemblies. Covid must no longer be used as an excuse to undermine media access arbitrarily, and any such restrictions must be legal, necessary, legitimate and proportionate in controlling the spread of Covid
- Stop using repressive laws against the media – This would entail placing an immediate moratorium on the use of repressive laws such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, the Official Secrets Act 1972, the Sedition Act 1948 and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, and proceeding with an urgent review to either amend or repeal these laws. Proceeding this way will also go beyond the usual rhetoric or promises made by politicians before this, and actually realise media reforms and uphold our constitutional rights
- Set up the Malaysian Media Council – Doing so will see the setting up of a transparent and independent self-regulatory body for the industry, and remove the involvement of the state in penalising the media. Having a media council in place will ensure responsible and inclusive reporting through the publication of guidelines to promote inclusive reporting on social areas and reduce political and commercial influences on media content. The government must proceed with the establishment of the council based on the pro tem committee’s draft bill
- Establish a media resilience fund – A fund is urgently needed to support and sustain the livelihoods, practices and operations of media personnel as they recover from the pandemic. Managed by an independent panel of experts, preferably by the Malaysian media council, the fund can offer small grants for individuals or small media organisations to offset or recoup financial losses, adapt their practices and explore new operating models
The CIJ looks forward to continued engagements with the government in enacting concrete reforms for the Malaysian media and realising full media freedom for the industry. – CIJ
Wathshlah G Naidu is executive director of the Centre for Independent Journalism