It is concerning that the Communications and Digital Ministry is not on the same page with other ministries over the push for media freedom and freedom of expression in the country.
Deputy minister Teo Nie Ching said her ministry has put the setting up of an independent media council as one of its top priorities, which is comforting. The proposed media council has been on the back burner for decades largely owing to a lack of commitment by past administrations.
However, she added, other ministries might have different priorities when it comes to the initiative to repeal or review laws that restrict media freedom and freedom of expression.
To be sure, Pakatan Harapan’s manifesto in the 2022 general election had promised to repeal or review restrictive laws such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 (PPPA), the Sedition Act 1948 and the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998.
Besides, criticisms against these laws are well known to PH leaders. These laws have been abused in the past for the political expediency of previous governments at the expense of the rights of journalists, activists and concerned people in Malaysia.
So, we would expect a concerted effort among the ministries concerned to address these problematic laws that are interrelated. In short, revisiting these laws has to be the top priorities of all the ministries concerned.
In this regard, we wonder why the Ministry of Home Affairs would have a different take on maintaining laws such as the PPPA and the Sedition Act.
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To argue that these laws are vital to preserve public peace and security is debatable, given the unjust manner these laws were applied in the past.
Under the PPPA, applications for certain publication permits or printing licences were denied and existing publications were closed down, often with vague excuses.
Even if the present minister would not venture into abusing such laws, the fact remains these instruments are there and can be used for purposes other than promoting media freedom under certain circumstances.
Or to take a longer view, future governments might be inclined to make use of these undemocratic laws for their political ends.
If necessity is a mother of invention, a certain publication was said to have appeared in the past at different times with different titles to dodge detection and a penalty from the Ministry of Home Affairs.
This is obviously not a feature of a vibrant democracy, and the laws do not serve justice.
Besides, there are other laws in the land that can be used for the same purpose of maintaining social order.
A piecemeal approach to reform in this context leaves much to be desired. It borders on mocking the clarion call for substantive social and political change.
Take the media council as an example. As rightly argued by advocates of media freedom, having a media council and maintaining the PPPA at the same time is tantamount to constructing a double layer of control over media personnel.
This clearly defeats the purpose of having an independent media council that is supposed to facilitate self-regulation among industry players.
In line with the spirit of media reform, the government should also take a keen interest in having a Freedom of Information Act that would help promote transparency and accountability.
However, as the notion of freedom of information by and large clashes with the country’s Official Secrets Act 1972, the latter also needs to be revisited.
The ministries concerned need to act in unison for the sake of media reform and democracy. – The Malaysian Insight