Expanding print media law to govern online content will hurt press freedom

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We’ve been here before, but it does look like we have to revisit it if political reforms are still on our collective mind. 

For those who have been clamouring for meaningful change in our society, particularly since 2018, what the government reportedly intends to do with the powerful Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 (PPPA) is worrying.

In the first place, it’s disconcerting enough for the public, especially the reform-minded, to know that the “Madani” (civil and compassionate) administration has no wish to keep its electoral promise – that is, to repeal the colonial legacy of the PPPA, among other repressive laws. 

What is now equally disturbing is that the government is mulling to extend the PPPA’s power to control online media content, which is obviously a regressive move.

We have seen how pernicious this law has been in helping to create an environment that is not conducive to media freedom, intellectual development and democracy.

Publishing permits held by newspapers and magazines were revoked or suspended in the past, when print journalists incurred the wrath of the powers that be.

Reporting or commentary that displeased the authorities was censored in this manner, giving rise to a self-sustaining culture of self-censorship.

With the government’s latest intent, the online media would face the same “fate” as the print media, with media practitioners always being left on tenterhooks. This is obviously not good for journalists who have a flair for investigative journalism.

Even without this intended amendment to the PPPA, certain news portals had been blocked by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission not too long ago for posting views said to be not favourable to the powers that be.

READ MORE:  Media freedom in Malaysia: Two steps forward, two steps backwards!

The way forward for any government that supposedly has a reformist agenda is to consider doing away with the PPPA, which over the years served as a censoring mechanism, especially when it could be abused by virtue of the broad and vague definitions inherent in it. 

If it is indeed true that there is a plan to add more power to the PPPA, then this constitutes a double whammy of disappointment for those who crave for reforms in the country. 

Existing laws such as the Sedition Act 1948, the Penal Code 1976 and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 also impose constraints on freedom of the media and of expression.

To be sure, this is not to say that anything should be fair game for inquisitive journalists.

There are laws in place to tackle attempts at abusing media freedom, for instance, defamation. But then, even the defamation law has been weaponised by those who have the wherewithal to scare off prying journalists.

The exploitation of the so-called “three Rs” (race, religion and royalty) by certain quarters is certainly concerning, as it is polarising our diverse society.

However, critics fear that the government’s effort to combat the misuse of the three Rs might, under certain circumstances, go to the extent of providing cover for a curb on media freedom. 

There have to be clear guidelines on what constitutes crossing the line.

The much-awaited media council that is supposedly self-regulatory would go a long way towards improving journalistic standards, making journalists accountable and promoting media freedom.

READ MORE:  Media council: Billed for progress?

However, its existence will be redundant if repressive laws are still being used to control the media.

What’s also unsettling is that certain quarters have taken censorship to the next level. 

For instance, certain individuals resorted to lodging police reports as a way of expressing their opposition to certain ideas. This may even take the form of, say, someone seriously taking exception to what looks like a humorous comment regarding a celebrity on social media. 

In the interest of the intellectual development in our society, the disgruntled should be in an environment that is conducive to engaging their opponents through writing opinions in the media or indulging in sober conversations.

As rightly pointed out by Communications Minister Fahmi Fadzil recently, politicians (and by extension, the common people) should exercise their right of reply if they disagree with the views published in the media.

Raising a ruckus in the street to gain public attention may not necessarily be a civilised option as it does not help to promote intellectual development.

To reiterate, people should be encouraged to express their views without fear or favour so that they are not easily induced to become faceless keyboard warriors, indulging in hate speech and reckless allegations.

The free exchange of opposing ideas in a non-violent manner should not be alien to any reform-minded government, as this is part and parcel of democracy. We should celebrate diversity. 

Keeping the PPPA and extending its reach to online media would contribute to a drop in media freedom. That should concern us. – The Malaysian Insight

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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Mustafa K Anuar
Dr Mustafa K Anuar, a longtime executive committee member and former honorary secretary of Aliran, is, co-editor of our newsletter. He obtained his PhD from City, University of London and is particularly interested in press freedom and freedom of expression issues. These days, he is a a senior journalist with an online media portal
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