Freedom of expression, hello?

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In the wake of the storm of criticism over the tsunami cartoon published in Berita Harian, Media Citizen takes a look at the recent record of freedom of expression in Malaysia.

Berita Harian apologised on Facebook for its tsunami cartoon

On 13 March 2011, Berita Harian was criticised for publishing a caricature of a Japanese popular character, Ultraman, running away from the tsunami wave.

Following criticism from readers and several political leaders of it being “inconsiderate and distasteful“, Berita Harian was issued a stern warning by Information Communication and Culture Minister Rais Yatim on the matter (see merdekareview.com and Bernama.com, 14 March 2011).

However, according to the minister, no legal action would be taken under the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 against Berita Harian because the caricature pertains to humanitarian issue.

Two things that need to be reflected upon: one is the integrity of the press in relation to the calamity in Japan. Another is the matter pertaining to freedom of speech.

The calamity has brought so much pain and sorrows to the people especially people in Japan. A caricature of this sort, even though it is meant to be a joke, is a callous act to the victims’ emotion as well as those who are in grief with the victims. Berita Harian, as a national newspaper in Malaysia, should be more sensitive to issues that relate to people’s lives. A show of respect to others reflects the level of integrity of one’s self, including that of the press.

This incident also tells us that freedom of expression in Malaysia is limited and under the control of the powers-that-be, especially in the case of the mainstream press like Berita Harian. Do not get me wrong. I am not urging the audiences to agree to its insensitivity to the calamity in Japan. I am only concerned about the level of freedom of expression in Malaysia.

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Why did the Ministry intervene in such an incident? Why is it that the right to apologise cannot be left alone to the editor of Berita Harian or the cartoonist? Political leaders can show concern, express views and criticism, but not to the extent of imposing a directive. The ministry’s act in giving a stern warning to Berita Harian is unacceptable.

Apart from the matter of integrity and moral sensitivity, Berita Harian has the right to publish its news and the content of its news. In the realm of freedom of expression, Berita Harian should be given the right to defend, to reflect, to review, to debate, to be condemned, to be judged, to be censored and censor, or even to bear other consequences of its own actions. Such pressure, support or condemnation must come from society, the readers, other media or non-political parties to ensure media integrity in the realm of public opinion.

More importantly, there seem to be double standards in the ways the powers-that-be handle the media. Let’s be reminded that this is not the first time the ministry/ies have imposed a directive to the media. Remember last year’s intervention in Zunar’s book launch and several other bans on his book and magazines?

Even before that, remember:

  • the whole fiasco surrounding Amir Muhammad’s film, “The Last Communist”;
  • Suara Keadilan being sued by Felda; the suspension on the state-run radio talk show “Ai FM” in July 2006 for discussing the issue of shrinking classes in Chinese schools;
  • the suspension of the RTM2 talk show ‘How do you say?’ in 2007/2008 for discussing issues that were considered ‘sensitive’, which among others were the ‘kris’ issue and relations between Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah/Sarawak;
  • the ban on the screening of several series of ntv’s ‘Track Files’ such as the series on the conversion issue and civil movements in Malaysia; and the Allah issue and the Herald in 2007/2008.
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Whither freedom of expression in Malaysia?

Media Citizen is the pseudonym of an Aliran member.

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