Press freedom vital, with or without state nod

Mustafa K. Anuar

The unity government must tackle laws that hinder media freedom. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, May 30, 2023.

Commentary by Mustafa K Anuar

IT IS significant that Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has reminded Malaysians of the importance of media freedom in the interest of democracy and good governance.

Speaking at the National Journalists’ Day (Hawana) 2023 celebration recently, he urged journalists to exercise their freedom to criticise his administration without having to resort to self-censorship.

Self-censorship is a pernicious culture spawned within the journalistic fraternity because the fear of state reprisal could result in the kind of reporting that no respectable journalist would want to touch even with a 10-foot pen.

Anwar was presented at the event with a gold category of the Media Certification Card by the Malaysian Information Department as a mark of appreciation for his professed promotion of media freedom.

While we appreciate the Tambun MP’s push for media freedom, we should bear in mind that the media is expected to seek ways and means to report as freely as possible, regardless of whether a sitting government respects press freedom or not.

To be critical of the government as well as the private sector should be the standard operating procedure for any media organisation worth its salt, even in the context in which a government of the day pretends to put a high premium on democracy.

To be sure, we are not talking about total media freedom here, as there is no such thing in the real world. There are laws, for instance, needed to curb defamation or character assassination. Besides, media freedom must also come with responsibility.

While certain laws of the land are essential to ensure public order and a smooth functioning of democracy, there are indeed laws that hinder media freedom.

Hence, for an administration that supports media freedom, the unity government must seriously revisit such problematic laws as the Printing Presses and Publications Act and the Sedition Act as well as several sections of the Communications and Multimedia Act, that in the past have served as stumbling blocks to freedom of expression and investigative journalism.

In some of these laws, definitions were left so vague as to allow for arbitrary actions of the government of the day. For example, who would have thought, say, 20 years ago that certain colours or wording in a watch would result in a brush with a particular law.

The government’s commitment to media freedom would be tested and measured by its willingness to review and repeal the media-related laws concerned.

It is also a useful reminder from Anwar that the opposition should also be accorded by the media sufficient space to air their views in a democratic system of governance. After all, opposition parties are legitimate entities in a democracy.

To hold the government to account for its actions and policies is the crucial role that the media are expected to play so as to ensure that the interests and concerns of the general public and of the nation as a whole are protected and promoted.

Performing such a role should not be deemed “anti-national” or even “anti-development”. It is being critical of the government.

A measure of the adversarial role is essential for the media to play in order to make a difference in investigative journalism. In other words, media-government relations should not be too cosy as to compromise journalists’ independence to report freely.

The long-awaited media council is essential in the effort of media practitioners to uphold high ethical standards as well as to conduct self-regulation and promote media freedom. The process of making the council a reality should not be delayed any further.

Media freedom does not develop in a linear fashion. There are hiccups and relapses along the way.

That is why journalists and those championing media freedom must always be vigilant, despite the nice rhetoric of state actors. – May 30, 2023.

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