Candidates should be committed to freedom of expression and information

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Centre
for Independent Journalism (CIJ), Writers Alliance for Media
Independence (WAMI), Charter 2000-Aliran and Civil Society Initiative
for Parliamentary Reform (CSI-Parliament) call on Malaysians to vote
wisely in the coming elections and to ensure that they vote in
individuals with integrity to represent them in Parliament.


Passivity of Malaysian minds must stop

 

Barisan
Nasional, which has been in power for half a century, has entrenched
and strengthened formal and informal controls over the media which
have left citizens uninformed of important political, socio-economic
and health developments. Such controls have resulted in the closing
of Malaysian minds.

In
the run-up to the 12th general elections, CIJ, WAMI, Charter
2000-Aliran and CSI-Parliament note the declining levels of press
freedom and restricted access to information. In 2007, CIJ documented
more than 60 cases of editorial interference and legal threats
against the media; intimidation against bloggers; clampdown of
assemblies; and other violations.

 

1.
Political pressure on the media

Excessive
media restrictions have cowed the mainstream media into becoming a
mouthpiece of the Barisan Nasional government. Regular warnings and
instructions from the Internal Security Ministry to newspaper editors
constitute direct governmental interference with editorial decisions
and prevent the media from reporting issues of public interest. Such
interference means that the public is not given the full story or is
kept in the dark about important debates and issues, among them
differing views on freedom of religion, the New Economic Policy,
education and health issues. The media’s hands are tied because of
various laws, in particular the Printing Presses and Publications Act
that gives absolute powers to the Minister to decide on the issuance
of annual publication permits for newspapers and magazines.

 

2.
Concentration of media ownership

Another
negative development is the trend in media ownership, with media
companies coming under the control of a small number of politically
connected companies or individuals. Two changes in the past year are
extremely alarming. First was the merger of Nanyang Press, Sin Chew
and Ming Pao (Hong Kong) that sealed the emergence of the Media
Chinese International Limited, making the Chinese daily market even
less competitive. Second, majority control of the relatively
independent newspaper theSun was taken over by the
BN-connected tycoon Tan Sri Vincent Tan. That this occurred just
before the general elections signals that election reporting may be
even more one-sided than in the previous elections.

 

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3.
Threats against journalists

Journalists
have faced physical threats from individuals and party members while
covering the general and by elections. In the Ijok and Machap
by-elections, for example, journalists from Makkal Osai and Malaysian
Nanban were manhandled and shoved by individuals linked to the MIC.
Journalists have also been recalled to the headquarters due to
pressure from political parties, in particular those comprising the
Barisan Nasional. This is a serious threat against journalists’
integrity and undermines their commitment to ethical public interest
reporting.

4.
Professional journalism in jeopardy

The
coverage of public interest issues has exposed the lack of
professionalism among some sections of the media, where facts are
compromised, issues and events deliberately ignored, and misreporting
and misinformation are seen with unfortunate regularity. This
situation is a result of the lack of market competition and the
concentration of media ownership in the hand of political and
corporate interests. It manifests itself in the shrinking areas of
what can be covered by the media. The reporting of the BERSIH and
HINDRAF rallies in November 2007 are clear examples of misreporting
and lack of professional rigour among editors.

 

Changes through the ballot box

A
fair, balanced and independent media is an important basis for a
democracy. The period of elections constitutes an especially
crucial time of test for the media.

CIJ,
WAMI, Charter 2000-Aliran and CSI-Parliament calls for good
journalism and free and fair media access to all parties and
candidates. There can be no free and fair elections without a free
press. Denied a free media, voters are effectively denied their right
to make an informed choice. Unfortunately, due to the control by the
Barisan Nasional parties over the mainstream media, coverage during
the elections is lopsided and generally unfair to other parties.
Academic research and civil society monitoring of the media during
the elections have consistently revealed serious bias in favour of
the Barisan Nasional.

We
urge the journalists to exercise their ethical and professional
standards and commitments to live up to their democratic role as the
state’s watchdog, and not its lapdog. We also urge the caretaker
government and media owners to practise a hands-off policy for the
journalists to report what they see fit. Journalists, media owners
and the caretaker government can do more harm to the elections and
democracy than phantom voters.

CIJ,
WAMI, Charter 2000-Aliran and CSI-Parliament urge voters to bring
about media laws reform through the ballot box. We reject completely
the Barisan Nasional’s argument that media freedom and diversity
threaten political stability, economic growth and social harmony.
Free flows of ideas and information are the fundamental basis for
political accountability, economic prudence and social cohesion.

We
are also critical of two misperceptions held and spread by certain
opposition politicians that media freedom is a single issue that
voters do not care about and that opposition parties cannot do
anything until they win power at the federal level. If the public
fails to see the importance of media freedom with all the political
scandals, economic mismanagement and social unrest, the opposition is
partially responsible for the failure articulate the importance of
media freedom. Even in the absence of executive power, elected
representatives can push for law reforms through mechanisms like
private member bills and select committee sittings. Finally,
advancing freedom of information can be done not only at the federal
level, but also at the state level. Opposition parties aiming to win
state power and candidates vying for state seats must not evade their
responsibility promote and uphold transparency and accountability.

 

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We
hereby call for:

Media
 

  • The
    media to provide fair access and coverage to all parties in the
    elections.
  • The
    media to provide honest and truthful coverage of issues and
    statements.
  • Journalists
    to be granted the freedom to work without undue pressure placed on
    them by the publishers and external parties.
  • All
    parties and individuals to respect the safety of journalists
    including photographers.

              Caretaker
government

The
caretaker government to refrain from manipulating the media to serve
its interests.

 

Election
Commission

The
Election Commission to call upon the RTM to organise televised
election debates and allocate fair air time in its radio and
television channels for the leaders of all political parties.

 

Parties
and Candidates

  • Parties
    and candidates to pledge to and advocate for in their campaigns (i)
    freedom of expression; (b) freedom of information; and (iii) greater
    diversity and plurality in media ownership and content.
  • Elected
    Parliamentarians to put forward a motion for a Parliamentary Select
    Committee on Media Laws Reform or to form a Multiparty Caucus on
    Media Laws Reform to review laws on access to information and freedom
    of expression.
  • Within
    the first year of their election, elected Parliamentarians and state
    assembly persons to table their private members’ bill for a Freedom
    of Information Act/Enactment, after consultation with civil society
    organizations, in the absence of a government bill tabled by the
    Federal/State government.

Electorate

  • The
    electorate to gather information from all possible sources to avoid
    falling victim to spin-doctoring and media control.
  • The
    electorate to vote for parties that are committed to freedom of
    expression, freedom of information, and a diverse and competitive
    media environment.
  • The
    electorate to demand that candidates make a concrete commitment to
    media law reforms and freedom of information laws, and to vote for
    those who do so.

CIJ
is a not-for-profit organisation that aspires for a society that is
democratic, just and free, where all people enjoy free media and the
freedom to express, seek, and impart information.

WAMI,
formed 11 days after the MCA took over Nanyang Siang Pau on 28 May
2001, advocates freedom of expression, freedom of information, and a
competitive environment where diverse journalists and media
organizations may operate independently and professionally.

Charter
2000-Aliran is a citizen’s media initiative to advance the cause of
media freedom through the promotion of a media charter to raise
public awareness.

CSI-Parliament
is a group of individuals from civil society to act as a catalytic
agent for parliamentary reform and to enhance the standard of
politics and governance in Malaysia.

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