The age of tolerating dishonesty is over

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The media and civil society in particular must always be vigilant against the erosion of democracy. Tan Choe Choe spoke to a few civil society activists.

In the aftermath of the historic polls, an acquaintance shared on Instagram that she has started buying the newspapers again. “Their tone surely has changed overnight,” she mused as she leafed through the pages of a local English daily.

It may sound disdainful, but her statement also underscores her hopes for a new dawn.

It also highlights one key aspect seen during the election: the gaping divide between alternative, online media and mainstream media. And consequently, how citizens took to alternative channels to become not just the disseminators of information, but also “editors and curators” too, and with unprecedented results, says Centre for Independent Journalism director Jac SM Kee.

Never has the local mainstream media been more ignored. “It’s because the age of tolerating dishonesty is well and truly over now,” says Jac Kee. “The lies, hatred and propaganda spewed by mainstream BN-controlled media became just water off a duck’s back,” one observer remarks.

Changing news consumption patterns aside, Malaysians are hungry for real, truthful news, Jac Kee says. And with the change of government, it has never been more important for the media to step up and play its role as the fourth estate — to be a check and balance in this new Malaysia — she says.

“There has been a huge deficit of trust in the local media to perform this function. The media is a very critical institution and is part of a healthy and functioning democracy. Without a dynamic, free and independent media, we do not have a free and healthy functioning democracy. If we are serious about rebuilding democracy in the country, then rebuilding the media has to be part of this project,” she adds.

So, let’s look at the laws that have restricted the media, as well as the issues of media ownership and monopoly, Jac Kee urges. “We need to deal with them so we can have a more enabling environment.”

Press freedom has become an elusive ideal in Malaysia over the decades, as law after law was passed to suppress opposing views, and state-controlled media was cowed into toeing the line. Many say the noose started tightening during Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s time, when he was the fourth prime minister, as he tried to stem calls for “reformasi” when battling his then nemesis, Anwar Ibrahim, who was later jailed on sodomy charges.

As one Anwar supporter put it recently, when they shouted “Free Anwar” about 20 years ago, they never thought, even at their most hopeful, that it would be Mahathir who would bring that about. Ironically, Malaysians are now looking to Mahathir to free the shackled press.

But the statements he has been making as the seventh prime minister in his first week in office, specifically how the Anti-Fake News Act 2018 needs to be studied and redefined instead of repealed, despite what he and his Pakatan Harapan coalition promised during campaigning, sounded portentious.

“Even though we support freedom of the press and freedom of speech, there are limits,” Mahathir said in a live telecast over RTM last Sunday.

His U-turn is worrying, says former communications academic Mustafa K Anuar in an email exchange with The Edge, given that the act has been perceived as a “dangerous tool” of the previous government to stifle and criminalise legitimate criticism of Najib Razak’s administration.

It doesn’t help that in the north, the newly elected Jelutong PH member of parliament RSN Rayer (DAP) in a Facebook post called for TV3’s broadcast licence to be revoked, claiming the station was politically controlled and that he was unhappy with its critical depiction of Penang in the past.

While DAP supremo Lim Kit Siang quickly moved to diffuse the public backlash by saying the DAP and PH are committed to upholding press freedom, the incident uncomfortably recalls the DAP’s high-handed way of dealing with certain media it disagreed with in the past, by barring them from press conferences.

Still, with the new government only just over a week old, many remain cautiously hopeful PH won’t backtrack on its promises.

“The benefit of the doubt needs to be given to some statements that were made in the heat of the moment. We are taking it with goodwill for now, but we are also calling for a clear reaffirmation of the promises they made as part of their manifesto, which is the abolition of certain draconian laws, [and an] immediate review of things known to have crippled civil society and [are a] violation of human rights,” says Jac Kee.

She also points to some “very strong and important statements” that have come from PH leaders in the same week, such as Lim Guan Eng and Nurul Izzah Anwar, about upholding freedom of expression and press freedom, that should be read together for the right context. “So, we’re still in the space where we have faith in the PH leadership to take their commitments seriously.”

Mustafa acknowledges that one cannot dismiss concerns over elements emerging that are inclined to abuse press freedom and freedom of expression to serve their own hidden agendas, in the call for greater freedom in Malaysia. “[But] there are laws such as the defamation law that can deal with such challenges.”

The solution is “very simple”, says Dr Francis Loh, who is a member of the executive committee of the reform movement Aliran. “Just give the power back to the people. They will self-regulate,” he says during a brief telephone chat.

The consensus is clear. No matter what challenges lay ahead, a line must be drawn. “The PH government must avoid the temptation to use undemocratic laws, as was the practice of past governments, as a justification to deal with these challenges. To do otherwise is a betrayal of the hope and aspirations of the Malaysian people who desire democracy, progress and greater freedom. In this regard, the media and civil society in particular must always be vigilant against the erosion of democracy,” Mustafa adds.

The unstoppable groundswell that took place on 9 May is testimony to Jac Kee’s words about Malaysians not tolerating dishonesty anymore. PH leaders would do well to remember that the same applies to those who make promises to Malaysians and then renege on them.

Source: The Edge, 22 May 2018

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Astilbe Merisioux

Thanks for this important article!