Many Malaysians are concerned about whether the media freedom they enjoyed since 2018 will continue. Mustafa K Anuar writes.
The measure of democracy in a country can be gauged by the way its government treats the media and freedom of expression.
This is because the media are often regarded as one of the vital pillars of democracy as they play an important role in the pursuit of transparency and accountability among the ruling politicians.
However, for regimes that are less democratic and brook no dissent, the media easily morph into a state mouthpiece only to churn out government propaganda and sugar-coated truths.
It is, therefore, important to know what lies ahead for the Malaysian media with the newly installed Muhyiddin Yassin government, following a recent coup that left many concerned Malaysians gaping and distressed.
This is especially so when the media and Malaysians in general have been enjoying a considerable degree of freedom under the previous Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration – which constitutes its electoral promise to widen media freedom and freedom of expression.
For instance, certain TV stations have allocated slots and airtime that have become popular over time among viewers owing to vibrant discussions conducted by panel members, many of whom are known for their critical stand on public issues. Similarly, columnists in the mainstream newspapers and news portals often express views critical of the powers that be.
Malaysians, especially those who care for democratic practices, are concerned about such freedoms, given that the Perikatan Nasional coalition, which was hurriedly cobbled, did not have time to explain what it thinks, if at all, of these freedoms.
Furthermore, a component of this pack, namely Barisan Nasional, was known more for its breach of media freedom and freedom of expression than its adherence when it was in power for many years.
The unfulfilled PH promise to repeal the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) now becomes the bane of Malaysians who crave for media freedom because, as was the case in the distant past, this act can be abused to “domesticate” and govern the media industry as a whole.
In other words, this piece of legislation serves as an effective tool of censorship of the state, thereby constricting space for public expression and legitimate criticism.
This, in turn, could spawn a culture of self-censorship among media practitioners, which could exact a heavy toll on journalistic ethics and professionalism.
Self-censorship becomes acute if and when the authorities resort to phone calls to browbeat editors and journalists, which is sinister as these calls are obviously unwritten (and hence, appear “unofficial”) and yet powerful in their effect.
This is why there has been a clamour for an independent media council within the journalistic fraternity. It was argued that this move would make self-regulation possible, thereby preventing state intervention in the affairs of journalists and the media.
However, the existence of media-related laws, such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act and the unrefined Official Secrets Act and Sedition Act, serve as a secondary layer of state control that makes a mockery of the proposed self-regulated media industry.
A constrained media not only deprives citizens of their right to express and dissent but also their sense of belonging to this country as relevant stakeholders. Such inclusivity is essential.
A liberalised media will help allow the country to move forward. It is also a measure of self-confidence of the state.