How press freedom is curbed in Malaysia

Mustafa K. Anuar

A government worth its salt should find ways to promote press freedom, and not seek means to curb it. – Pixabay pic, May 11, 2024.

IN defending Malaysia’s recent press freedom ranking drop in the 2024 World Press Freedom report, Communications Minister Fahmi Fadzil argued that the Malaysian government, unlike the Israeli regime, did not kill people.

This was his response to Bersatu leader Wan Saiful Wan Jan, who pointed out that Malaysia even ranked lower than the Zionist state, which is now well-known for its blatant violation of human rights and humanitarian laws.

Malaysia is ranked this year by Reporters Without Frontiers (RSF) at 107th place while Israel is at 101. This is an abysmal drop for Malaysia from 73rd place out of 180 countries that was recorded last year.

To be clear, the Zionist state had killed to date 142 Palestinian journalists as a brutal way of curbing critical reportage of the Israeli genocidal onslaught. 

Apart from the recent Israeli shutdown of global media outlet Al Jazeera, Western broadcasting networks, particularly CNN, have their reporting on Israel and Palestine vetted by Israeli military censors. 

Indeed, the above cases are glaring examples of how Israel brazenly and violently suppressed press freedom, which, in turn, had made sceptics to wonder whether the US’ client state should have been ranked a spot lower than it is currently placed. 

Be that as it may, this should not distract us from the fact that press freedom and freedom of expression can also be muzzled in ways that are relatively subtle but are no less pernicious and punitive. 

Take the existing colonial relic of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 (PPPA), which was supposed to have been repealed according to a reformist electoral promise. 

Under this law, anyone who wants to publish a newspaper, magazine or other periodicals would have to apply for a permit.

Similarly, a printer would have to secure a printing licence from the Home Ministry before he or she can use the printer to print a large amount of copies.

Newspaper owners, as well as editors, who have invested large sums of money in the publishing enterprises are likely to tread carefully so as not to ruffle the feathers of the powers-that-be.

Otherwise, they may run the risk of having their publishing permits and printing licences revoked or suspended – and losing money as a result. Put another way, censorship rears its ugly head.  

The pressure to stay away from “harm’s way” has given rise to the hideous culture of self-censorship among journalists. The overly cautious among them might be tempted to draw a line that they imagine the authorities would prefer.

Self-censorship takes on a life of its own so that the government appears to keep a comfortable distance from the running of a publication. A mirage of press freedom. 

In this context, investigative journalism, which is an important aspect of the newspaper world, can be regarded by some as a scandalous proposition as it would take people in power to account for their actions. 

It can also result in dissenting voices being marginalised in the media that would constantly look over their shoulders. 

The PPPA had also been used last year to raid a bookstore and confiscate a few books the government presumably considered “dangerous” or “unsuitable”. This act infringed on freedom of expression. 

Even wrist watches were not spared from confiscation if they are thought to convey certain “dangerous” meanings, as exemplified by the raids on Swatch watches last year. 

To be sure, some laws are defined so broadly or vaguely that critics fear this could lead to abuse.

In the internet age in which news portals and social media platforms prevail, the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (CMA), particularly its Section 233, has a role and impact akin to that of the PPPA. 

For instance, in February 2016, The Malaysian Insider, the precursor to The Malaysian Insight, was blocked by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission because the news portal was said to have breached the CMA.

The shutdown came on the heels of The Malaysian Insider publishing a number of articles pertaining to the 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) scandal.

The CMA prohibits the use of websites to publish “any comment, request, suggestion or other communication which is obscene, indecent, false, menacing or offensive in character with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass another person”. 

We wonder who was really annoyed and what was so “menacing” and “offensive” at this political juncture.  

Graphic artist Fahmi Reza and cartoonist Zunar, who were critical of the government at the time, had also run afoul of the law.  

Press accreditation cards issued by the Information Department is another mechanism of control placed in the hands of the government. 

Recently, the department decided to issue these cards with shorter validity to online journalists. Why discriminate them from other kinds of journalists? 

While it’s true that a journalist can still operate without the press card, as Fahmi insisted, the former will lose the opportunity to cover events in many government facilities which require press cards, such as official press conferences where searching questions need to be raised. 

To reiterate, such laws and practices as mentioned above were employed in the past largely for the purpose of self-preservation among the power holders.

While we take cognisance of the problems associated with a diverse society such as ours, such social reality should not be used as a convenient excuse to act in a way that is inimical to freedom of expression and press freedom.

Sure, there are certain quarters that are quick to disseminate disinformation or misinformation for their dark designs. One of the ways to combat this menace is for the government to be transparent and credible. 

Electoral promises, such as creating the Freedom of Information Act and an independent media council, must be revisited.  

There are also repressive laws to be repealed if we are serious about advancing press freedom.

A government worth its salt should find ways to promote press freedom. Not seek means to curb it. – May 11, 2024.

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