Press freedom: Malaysia soars 22 rungs in latest ranking

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Malaysia has climbed 44 rungs in the two years that followed regime change in 2018, keeping it in top spot among Asean countries. But looming crises will threaten the media globally, Benedict Lopez writes.

Amid the current global coronavirus pandemic, French NGO, Reporters Without Borders (Reporters San Frontiers or RSF), released the 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

The theme for this year’s report is “Entering a decisive decade for journalism, exacerbated by coronavirus.” This annual index looks at journalism and the critical role journalists play in 180 countries and territories.

Deeply disturbing in this year’s report is that five major crises within the next 10 years are expected to severely affect media freedom:

  • A geopolitical crisis due to the aggressiveness of authoritarian regimes
  • A technological crisis due to a lack of appropriate regulations
  • A democratic crisis with democratically elected leaders encouraging anti-media smears and hatred of journalists
  • A crisis of trust due to growing suspicion of the news media
  • An economic crisis impoverishing quality journalism

These five challenges create fear and insecurity, which provides an opportunity for tyrannical regimes to justify repression in line with what the report describes as the “shock doctrine”.  The report notes “they are taking advantage of the fact that politics are on hold, the public is stunned and protests are out of the question to impose further measures to stifle free media which would be unfeasible during normal times”.

Scandinavian countries took top positions in the 2020 index. Norway leads for the fourth consecutive year, followed by Finland, again in second. Denmark and Sweden come in third and fourth. The Netherlands drops a spot to fifth, mainly due to a rise in in cyber-harassment.

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France and the UK are further behind at 34th and 35th, the US a disappointing 45th, Russia 149th and China 177th – definitely poor rankings for all five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Malaysia rose 22 rungs to 101st in 2020. This maintains Malaysia’s top spot among Asean countries, followed by Indonesia 119th, Philippines 136th, Myanmar 139th, Thailand 140th, Cambodia 144th, Brunei 152nd, Singapore 158th, Laos 172nd and Vietnam 175th.

Last year Malaysia experienced a similar surge, climbing 22 rungs from 145th spot. This means the country has climbed a total of 44 rungs in two years, as it basked in a more relaxed media environment following regime change in the 2018 general election. It remains to be seen how Malaysia will fare in next year’s rankings after a “backdoor” coup in February 2020.

Sudan improved 16 places to 159th after former President Omar al-Bashir was removed from office. The two biggest falls in Africa were in Comoros (75th place) and Benin (113th).  

Iran comes in at 173rd, mainly due to its extreme censorship of its coronavirus outbreaks, while Hungary’s is at 89th because of its adoption of a controversial “coronavirus” law.

The sharpest decline this year is in Haiti, where journalists have often been targeted during violent nationwide protests for the past two years. It fell 21 places to 83rd spot.

Little change among the bottom three: Eretria at 178th, Turkmenistan 179th and North Korea 180th.

It is heartening to see developing countries like Jamaica and Costa Rica, at sixth and seventh, ranked higher than developed nations such as Switzerland, New Zealand, Portugal, Germany and Belgium (ranked eighth to 12th). Another developing country, Namibia was in 23rd spot, higher than Australia and Spain in 26th and 29th.

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RSF believes the years ahead will be a critical time for journalism. The right to independent free and fair reporting and diverse and reliable information is being severely undermined more than ever. Press freedom should be paramount and journalists should be allowed to discharge their duties without fear or favour.

RSF secretary-general Christophe Doloire puts it starkly. “We are entering a decisive decade for journalism-linked crises that affect our future. The coronavirus pandemic illustrates intimidation and the right to reliable information. RSF is concerned about the freedom of information, pluralism and reliability by 2030, and is of the view the answer to that question is being determined currently.”

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Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. An eternal optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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