Malaysians ready for press freedom

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World Press Freedom Day reminds us yet again that nothing worthy comes to us without a struggle.  The campaign for greater press freedom and freedom of expression is not over yet and there is an urgent need to reinforce our resolve to carry on until the ultimate goal is achieved.

When the Abdullah administration took over in 2003, seemingly energised in its drive against corruption, hopes soared. Many thought that it would promote press freedom and transparency in government unlike the iron-fisted rule of his predecessor, who stifled dissent and buried transparency with his Official Secrets Act.

With the passage of time, however, those hopes have faded. As a result of several actions taken by the government – such as the suspension of the China Press over the ‘nude squats’ scandal, the delay in renewing the publishing permit of the Oriental Daily, the censorship of certain news that the powers-that-be were not comfortable with, and the marginalising of a group of writers by certain mainstream newspapers – many Malaysians are now disillusioned. They are convinced that the status of press freedom in Malaysia has not changed very much.

Restrictive laws such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act, which curb press freedom and discourage investigative journalism, are still in force. It has been several years since Abdullah Badawi, then the Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister, received a petition from a large group of Malaysian journalists calling for the repeal of the PPPA. But nothing has changed.

This of course has not deterred many journalists and other civil society groups from fighting for press freedom. And we will continue with our demand for the repeal of the PPPA in the interest of the country and its people.

The late veteran journalist MGG Pillai, for one, fought to the bitter end because, like others, he believed that press freedom could not be attained on a silver platter. He did not compromise when it came to upholding his belief in the freedom of the media. Instead, he turned to the Internet to record his views fearlessly. His commitment to independent journalism and his love for press freedom should be a motivating force for all concerned Malaysians.

In this respect, we call upon the Malaysian media to remain true to the dictates of their conscience and to live up to the highest traditions of journalism – that is, to report truth to power and to protect the public interest, rather than their advertisers'. Once unfair reporting creeps into the media or when the media take the side of those in power, the media will lose whatever integrity and respect they have.

For instance, the recent debate on the Ninth Malaysia Plan involving RM220 billion in government spending over the next five years was given wide publicity in the media. But it was the official view and rationale for the Plan that enjoyed one-sided coverage. Malaysians hardly read any substantive reporting on differing views about the Plan. The Leader of the Opposition who reportedly spoke for six hours on the Plan did not get any substantive coverage. Only silly banter and stupid remarks involving him and the Barisan MPs and Ministers were given full coverage. Malaysians have a right to know what he had to say; whether there are shortcomings that we are not aware of. After all, his office is maintained from public funds and he enjoys certain facilities that come with his position. He should have been given decent coverage.

Neither have the media acquitted themselves well during elections. The Opposition's views were not only given inadequate coverage but also deliberately distorted and discredited. Aliran's statements and commentaries during elections were completely blacked out. The media, instead, slavishly reported every little thing that was performed by the ruling coalition and went out of their way to project the Barisan as the only group that was capable of ruling the country.

The media can redeem themselves by reporting fairly and truthfully the upcoming elections in Sarawak. They should not be one-sided in their reporting and should give equal space to the Opposition. In this way, they can chart a new beginning for ethical journalism. Promoting and protecting a journalism that speaks without fear or favour is the only way to improve the standards, integrity and credibility of Malaysian journalism.

Let's not be taken in by what Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin said recently. According to him, Malaysians are not intelligent enough to sieve through a mass of information. We reject this view as an unsubstantiated fairytale. On the contrary, we believe that Malaysians are indeed hungry for the real news and are ready to follow intelligent debates of public significance.

This is why we continue to urge the government to repeal all oppressive laws and institute a Freedom of Information Act that would enable concerned Malaysians to have access to information that affects their daily lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren.

Dr Mustafa K Anuar and Anil Netto

Coordinators, Charter 2000-Aliran

3 May 2005 

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