Contemporary media: prescribed freedom, proscribed truth

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For all intents and purposes, media freedom and, by extension, freedom of expression in Malaysia, are still considered to be a privilege, not a human right by the powers that be, claims Mustafa K Anuar.

The fact that Malaysia has slipped further to 147th spot in the World Press Freedom Index of 2014 is indicative of this phenomenon. To give a broader perspective, Malaysia attained 110th spot in 2002, 92nd spot in 2006 and 122nd spot in 2011-2012.

Repressive laws

There are many reasons for this abysmal media performance. For one thing, repressive laws that directly or otherwise govern the media industry still exist.

The Printing Presses and Publications Act, although amended recently, still accords the Home Minister the power to deny publishing permits to applicants, such as the case of Malaysiakini seeking legal recourse to publish its print edition. The same applied to the case of FZ Daily, which was refused a permit.

newspapersNews weekly The Heat was found to be too hot to handle by the government: it was suspended for more than a month. It was rumoured that the suspension was linked to the front-page news of the publication’s 23-29 November 2013 issue regarding the big-spending habits of Prime Minister Najib Razak and wife Rosmah Mansor.

The official explanation was that the publisher allegedly did not inform the Home Ministry of a change of ownership and refused to respond to two show-cause letters.

The federal government’s differential treatment of different sets of media and journalists has given rise to lopsided and unbalanced media coverage. On the one hand, the mainstream media provide more than sufficient and positive coverage of the federal government and BN politicians. On the other, online publications such as Malaysiakini often find themselves having relatively better access to PR politicians to the extent that they’re seen to be heavily pro-opposition in their reporting.

In contrast, some BN and federal government functions have become a no-go area for the alternative media outlets. The negative sentiments of the ruling elite towards these alternative media is well illustrated by Najib’s filing of a libel suit against Malaysiakini over its readers’ comments that were critical of him and his Umno Baru party in early June 2014. The prime minister should have used his right of reply instead.

But then, a few dailies are more equal than others in Malaysia’s media landscape. In particular, Utusan Malaysia has been known to have carried reporting as well as opinion pieces that are deemed seditious, ethnically damning and divisive. Yet, it could do all this with much impunity and without much reprimand, let alone punishment, from the ruling coalition.

“Apa lagi Cina mahu?”, for instance, was a screaming headline that was splashed on the front page of the Malay daily (7 May 2013) in the wake of the 13th general election when the majority of the Chinese Malaysian community voted against the incumbent BN coalition. In other words, the electoral results, which Najib himself described as a ‘Chinese tsunami’ was given a heavy ethnic tone by Utusan.

An equally oppressive law that runs counter to the very notion of freedom of information, that is, the Official Secrets Act, is still in existence and enforced. This law often serves as an annoying obstacle to the citizens’ right to access vital and important information held by government agencies especially when the definition of ‘official secrets’ is so wide and obscure as to include almost anything within the power structures of government.

The side effect of this law is that journalists have developed an unhealthy culture of self-censorship, with the consequence of denying citizens the right to obtain information of public interest and significance.

Noble initiatives, but …

This undemocratic situation has given rise to noble initiatives after the sea change experienced at the 12th general election, particularly by civil society and subsequently the ruling parties in Selangor and Penang riding on a popular wave of transparency, accountability and good governance. An enactment to facilitate the free flow of information was instituted in these two states.

But in its 2-8 August 2014 issue, The Heat news weekly reported that its reporters in Selangor and Penang could not get the information they sought from these state governments that had passed their own Freedom of Information Enactment on 1 April 2011 and 4 November 2011 respectively. Furthermore, a few residents in these states also encountered difficulties in getting official information.

It appears that not much publicity has been mounted pertaining to the FOI Enactment so that the general public would be aware and make full use of it. In short, the notion and practice of freedom of information is still at its infancy.

Mainstream media fortunes sag

In terms of media ownership structure in the country, it is business as usual. Meaning to say, the major media houses are owned by organisations that are closely aligned to the powers that be, such as Media Prima (which owns all the private terrestrial TV stations and newspapers such as New Straits Times, Berita Harian, Harian Metro etc), Utusan Melayu group (which owns Utusan Malaysia, Wanita etc) and the Malaysian Chinese Association (which owns the majority shares of The Star).

Although these media outlets dominate the media scene in Malaysia, their fortunes are dwindling, what with a heavy drop in newspaper circulation and plummeting advertising revenue. They face an increasing challenge from the internet, particularly news portals such as Malaysiakini, The Malaysian Insider, Malay Mail Online and Free Malaysia Today, which offer what the mainstream media refuse to, or cannot, offer.

Even if the mainstream media do cover, the reportage would be of a certain slant that serves the interests of the BN coalition as a whole. For example, the Bersih 2.0 rally in Kuala Lumpur that received much public response was demonised and discredited by much of the mainstream media as an illegal, nay violent, gathering that was aimed at creating havoc and lawlessness. Such a portrayal was designed to ridicule the public’s democratic aspirations.

The internet: the way forward

The news portals do make a difference by providing some degree of investigative reporting, incisive analyses and commentaries as well as well-informed letters from readers.

There are times when these online publications are able to push certain issues into the public domain so much so that the mainstream media cannot refuse to report them, such as irregularities in government contract deals or corruption allegations. In some ways, they are able to make the government account for their policies and actions.

But the architect of the Multimedia Super Corridor, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, himself has made the plea for censorship of the internet because it ‘undermines public morality’. The usual mantra of the internet supposedly encouraging child sex abuse, incest, sex in public, and LGBT was marshalled by the former premier, who once expressed joy in getting intellectual refuge through his blog and online newspapers in the virtual world – after being rebuffed by the mainstream media.

Although we’re mindful of the ‘paternalistic control’ being wielded by the Malaysian Commission of Media and Communications as well as the constraints imposed by media-related laws, the internet still offers hope and freedom to some degree for people whose voices have all along been denied or disparaged. Similarly, we in Aliran feel that the way forward is via the internet, all things considered.

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