Charter 2000-Aliran has dissected the proposed bill to set up a Media Council, and its findings are not pretty. There appear to be virtually no safeguards in the interest of freedom of expression or real journalistic ethics. It is too ambiguous in areas that should be clearly defined and explained. Overall, it is an extra curb on press freedom in the country.
In order to ensure the independence of the Council, it cannot have any provision in the Act that links the Council to a Minister (one is not sure which Minister is involved here). Additionally, the Council should be accountable only to the Parliament, and not the government of the day.
Prior to the setting up of this Council, what is required is the repeal of the obnoxious PPPA — as well as the OSA, Sedition Act and, last but not least, the ISA. As such, the Council need not be entrusted to perform the role of licensing newspapers. Instead, the Council should only see to the registration of all regular periodicals or publications in this country. In other words, to empower the Council to license the press is to give legitimacy to the idea of press licensing, which has been abused in the past by the government.
On pg. 4 of the Bill, it was stated: “An Act to establish the Malaysian Press Council for the purpose of preserving, promoting and protecting the freedom of the Press, of maintaining and improving the ethical and professional journalistic standards of newspapers, press publications and news/press agencies in Malaysia.”
The meaning of this section must be clarified. What is the standard measure used to define press freedom? No reference is made to any international law, practice or custom. No reference to any human rights law e.g. the UDHR or internationally recognized human rights covenant, e.g. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights etc. or international agreements by media organizations as to what press freedom and practice are.
In the section on “Appointment of Board members from the Council”, it was stated that:
(1) Members of the Boards as provided under section 6(1) shall be appointed from within the Council.
(2) Each Board shall consist of no more than five members from the Council and such members so appointed shall not sit on more than one Board at any one time.
(3) The Council shall have the power to co-opt as members of any Board constituted under section 6(1) such other number of persons, not being members of the Council, as it thinks fit.
(4) Any such member shall have the right to attend any meeting of the Boards on which he is so co-opted and to take part in the discussion thereat, but shall not have the right to vote and shall not be a member for any other purpose.
Why are these provisions in (2), (3) and (4) necessary? These provisions, particularly (3) and (4) can be abused.
In the section on “Handling Complaints’, it was stated in: “(4) Generally, any complaint received will be dealt with on the basis of written evidence. Oral evidence may only be accepted in exceptional circumstances where an affidavit explaining such circumstances is submitted together with the complaint.” No explanation or clarification is given as to what constitutes “exceptional circumstances”.
In the section on “Meeting of the Council and Boards”, it was stated among other things that “(6) The quorum at a Council meeting shall be twenty (20) members.” The number for a quorum is too large.
In the Bill, although there is a Board that is given the task for the licensing of the press, the final say is still given to a Minister concerned. This actually provides the Minister to exercise power that may be construed as undemocratic as it is now in the case of the PPPA.
Any newspapers or publications that have abused their freedom to publish, or committed some serious misdemeanour, should be brought, as a last resort, to the court.
As regards the composition of the Council, [a] apart from representatives from the various newspapers, there should also be people who represent consumer groups, minority groups and women. The membership of the Council should also include people from the academia, civil society groups such as human rights organisations and media activists. [b] The nomination of 8 MPs by the Speaker of Parliament, 3 Senators by the Senate President can be problematic in the sense that ruling party members may dominate this nomination, thereby causing havoc to the very notion of an independent Council. Perhaps there could be specified allocations or quotas for members from the ruling party and the Opposition as well so that the numbers are not tipped towards the ruling party.
On the part on “Consultation on codes and guidance” it was stated that: “(1) Before issuing any code or guidance under this section, the Board shall consult with any such person or persons or organisations the Board thinks fit.” In the interest of transparency, the Board should state in the codes or guidance issued, who and which organizations they have consulted in drafting the code.
As regards the term of office and retirement of members, why should the Chairman/Chairperson give notice in writing to 'the Minister' if s/he decides to resign? We would suggest that the Chairperson should only be answerable to the Parliament.
Conclusion: This piece of legislation creates another unnecessary public body with wide powers to curb press freedom despite its apparent duty to uphold that right. It also acts as a censorship board, only dealing with complaints against the press organisations and journalists and not against denial of freedom of expression by other entities such as ministers or organisations whose actions effectively suppress the right of freedom of expression. It is also a method of by-passing the legal system where allegations may be challenged and questioned in open court. It is biased in favour of the complainant whoever they happen to be, and is empowered to impose draconian penalties which can result in suppression of freedom of expression and information by, for example, bankrupting and embarrassing media organizations. There appear to be virtually no safeguards in the interest of freedom of expression or real journalistic ethics. It is too ambiguous in areas that should be clearly defined and explained. Overall, it is an extra curb on press freedom in the country.