Malaysian press freedom

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Police and Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) officials recently raided The Malaysian Insider office and arrested three editors, the chief executive and the publisher - Photograph: The Malaysian Insider

The government has much more challenging and important work to do than try to muzzle a few journalists just doing their jobs, says John W English.

It totally baffles me that governing officials in Malaysia are convinced that arresting journalists, including an editorial cartoonist, is an effective way to prevent terrorism.

In this smartphone-internet era, almost everyone is now a citizen journalist armed with a mobile device that shoots photos and video. The mass exchange of ideas and information from peer to peer is the current equivalent of publication. It’s simply delusional to think that repressing a few media employees who have views different from the government’s will alter the complex contemporary media landscape one little bit.

Society is so wholly interactive now that the old top-down system is gone forever. Lee Kuan Yew’s model of press repression may have worked a half century ago, but it’s laughably antiquated in today’s global digital network.

The government reveals its insecurity and ineptitude by trying to squelch opposing viewpoints, labelling them seditious. That’s pure paranoia. Ridiculously ineffectual.

Instead, it should ramp up its own communications to compete in the marketplace of ideas. What’s needed is more, open discussion of issues. More dialogue between the government and the governed. Officials should explain and defend their positions, but also listen and learn from public discourse. Officials have to ‘sell’ their ideas to the electorate. They should eagerly criticise and challenge opponents. If it’s not possible to shape opinion, take the high road by agreeing to disagree. Unpopular ideas should be revised or shelved. Putting opponents in jail is a symbol of failure. It’s a big black eye in the world arena.

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Effective governing is a give-and-take process. Officials who are passionate about their views have to be persuasive spokesmen for them. They also must be engaged listeners and willing to respond to citizens.

In a democratic society, every citizen has a vote, so ideally will participate in creating a collective destiny. From my long association with Malaysia — I served in the first group of US Peace Corps Volunteers more than 50 years ago — I am convinced that Malaysians of all stripes are loyalists and are united in the shared objective of advancing the country. The pace of development alone proves that point.

I’m old enough to remember the affable founding PM Tunku Abdul Rahman, who used the press effectively. In his regular column for The Star, the beloved Tunku mused on all sorts of concerns, many public, some personal. He stirred public dialogue and endeared himself to everyone, earning his tag Bapa Malaysia.

Similarly, the lovable local cartoonist Lat regularly commented on hot political issues as he tweaked the powerful. At the time, it was widely accepted that satire and pungent humour were a cartoonist’s arsenal. Lat’s views were never considered treasonous because he was, after all, a “kampong boy”.

My point is that a democracy thrives when the public forum is broad, deep and intense. That means that all views should be respected. Opposition views often produce a synthesis that is better than either side. Citizens are considerably more likely to accept a government policy, if the government explains it thoroughly. In short, the government has much more challenging and important work to do than try to muzzle a few journalists just doing their jobs.

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Dr John W English is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the University of Georgia and earlier served as Visiting Prof Madya at Universiti Sains Malaysia.

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