LAST_UPDATETue, 19 Jun 2018 10pm

Press Freedom In Malaysia, What Lies Ahead

It came as no surprise to any Malaysian when our country’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index for 2018 dropped to 145 out of 190 countries surveyed in April this year.

Yet, who could have foreseen that the course of history can be changed within a month, as talks of greater press freedom bring renewed optimism since the change in government.

The local media industry has longed been deemed as heavily influenced by the former ruling government in dictating the news coverage in the country, but perhaps Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) victory in the 14th General Election (GE14) provides the impetus to bring about the necessary change for the nation’s media practitioners.

As a matter of fact, the newly-elected Permatang Pauh Member of Parliament (MP) Nurul Izzah Anwar, had reaffirmed her commitment to press freedom as the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) vice-president plans on instituting a media council and work on abolishing the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA).

And while both the masses and members of the media and journalism industry eagerly await for the new government to materialise their promise for press freedom, Malaysian Digest spoke to industry professionals to share their views on the necessary changes that need to take place to achieve this goal.

What Former Media Bosses Say About Past Political Interference In Press Freedom

Although many Malaysians are looking forward to a complete revamp of the journalism industry, Syed Nadzri Syed Harun, pointed out that all (political) parties will pledge for freedom of the press prior the election.

As he opined that minute changes will occur with the industry – except for the positions and bearings of the mainstream media – the former News Straits Times Group Editor foresee the new government to loosen press freedom, but down the line things might revert back to the status quo.

Sharing his thoughts and comments regarding PH’s historic feat, Syed Nadzri deduced that, “the previous government had miscalculated the sentiments of most people.

“It had ministers who were rude and arrogant, [and] there were misgivings everywhere – despite the one-sided news given to them by the mainstream media.

“This in fact caused a backlash,” he explained.

And speaking of one-sided news, the veteran journalist also relayed that it will be ideal for media and print houses to have zero affiliation with political parties.

But despite vehemently expressing his disapproval for media and print houses to be affiliated or to be owned by political parties, he underlined that neutrality or unprejudiced coverage – which is a challenge faced by the journalism industry throughout the globe – is a figment of the imagination.

All around the world, press freedom is a challenge to uphold not just against interference from politicians but also media owners who are often corporate leaders with their own agenda in shaping opinions and views of readers.

In fact, the recent World Press Freedom Index released in April this year shows that global press freedom is declining, "not only in authoritarian countries but also increasingly in countries with democratically elected leaders", Al Jazeera reported.

“As credibility is the badge that every newspaper puts its image on, these media and print houses will amplify their credibility should they stand independent.

“Newspapers and media houses should also not self-censor,” and added that the existing laws which governs the publication of defamation and seditious news will ensure reports are factual and are considerate of the sensitive topics.

Syed Nadzri then recalled an incident prior a press conference held by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad during his first stint at Malaysia’s Prime Minister (PM), in which he was told by an aide to not ask the PM of his upcoming trip to the Vatican – despite it being the story of the day.

But he refused to follow the ‘directive’ and proceeded to ask Mahathir of the subject, in which his queries were answered freely without displeasure, although at the cost of displeasing the aide.

On that note, Syed Nadzri reminded that the very essence of journalism is to report, to educate and to entertain.

“Journalists should do this without any constraint,” he emphasised, and advised that journalist should also, “be fair, and comments must be obtained from all sides.”

His sentiments are echoed by a former Media Prima chief executive officer (CEO) as the former CEO emphasised that the public has little to zero trust with the mainstream media and press due to their long standing political affiliation and biased reporting.

The former CEO then pointed out this unfortunate legacy has tainted the local journalism industry and damaged journalistic integrity, whilst stressing that journalists have a duty in reporting fair, factual and truthful news – one that is not politically and personally driven.

“Media and press houses should take this opportunity to cut ties with any political parties and find their bearings, as in doing so they will gradually regain the public’s trust.

“The national news agency, on the hand, should acknowledge that they are considered as the country’s number one news source and therefore, should take the lead in reporting factual and truthful news – without malice – even when the truth is unpleasant.

“And journalists should also take this opportunity to rethink their purpose in being a member of the industry,” the former CEO advised.

Journalists Should Report Based On Facts Rather Than Allegations And Alleged ‘Tip-Offs’

The shocking defeat of Barisan Nasional after a 60-year rule saw many Malaysians calling for certain newspapers, television (TV) stations and online portals to be disbanded for their pro-government stand – so much so that countless journalists were at the receiving end of severe criticism and malicious derogatory remarks.

Even though majority of Malaysians have pinpointed which mainstream media is politically affiliated, a Facebook post by a former TV3 broadcast journalist, Zuan Azmi, highlighted that one bad apple spoils the barrel, which he regards as an unfortunate circumstance for genuine journalists with integrity.

While the mainstream media paid the price of political interference, the founders of Supernewsroom Manminder Kaur Dhillon and Puspavathy Ramaloo had similarly written on Free Malaysia Today (FMT) that journalists are merely reporting based on the directive that has been given.

This prompted Malaysian Digest to catch up with a seasoned journalist, who would like to be known as Shafiqah, in hopes of understanding how the absence of absolute press freedom served as a hindrance for local journalists.

“The existing laws prohibit us from reporting on any defamation and seditious news, but these laws have been manipulated to bury the former government’s enemies in shame and shamelessly put them (the former government) on a high pedestal.

“Even when we (journalists) are against the given directive and the nature of the industry, there was very little that could be done as, for some, the consequences will disable them from bringing food to the table,” the journalist with over three decades of experience lamented.

Shafiqah recalled a moment where she was suspended after refusing to report on de facto PKR leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s sodomy case, as the directive that was given went against her religious teachings and personal beliefs.

As she pointed out this was one of many series of suspensions and dismissals, the veteran journalist relayed that this is a familiar plight that past and current journalists hurdled through.

“Journalists should be able to voice their concerns (professionally) without fearing repercussions; journalists should be protected when they raise their woes, rather than being suspended or fired; but above all, journalists should report based on facts rather than allegations and alleged ‘tip-offs’.

“With the new government, I genuinely hope these predicaments will be a thing of the past for the sake of current and aspiring journalists, as well as the industry.

“Therefore, I call on all journalists, regardless from which media and from which desk you hail from, to speak up and to take a stand when the directives or your superiors fail to uphold journalistic integrity.

“I also believe there should be an independent body doing a check-and-balance on all media outlets and newspapers.”

When asked of her opinions on the media council, the woman in her 50s strongly encouraged the government to establish a self-regulating media body that is independent of the government, on top of abolishing the draconian PPPA law.

While Shafiqah is optimistic that the new government will help usher in a better future for the journalism industry, she stressed that media and press associations and journalists have a role to play in championing press freedom too.

“The associations have a crucial role to play in monitoring the changes and trends within the industry – locally and globally – and work together with the media council as well as the Home Affairs Ministry in formulating updated laws and regulations.

“These associations should also regularly speak with media and press houses as well as journalists on their concerns and plights. In doing so, it ensures that the industry is constantly evolving,” she urged.

Imperative For Laws On Press Freedom To Evolve With The Changing Of Times

Just yesterday, the newly-installed Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo said that the Anti-Fake News Act will be repealed, whilst emphasising that press freedom is his main agenda – which is in line with PH’s manifesto.

The minister also mooted the idea of a media council to self-govern the industry, although the discussion is still in the early stages pending for the prime minister’s feedback.

“Media freedom is my priority. The media churning out news and publishing companies are bound by the existing laws so we have to look at it that way and we have to find ways to improve the freedom of press in the country. And I am committed to doing so.

“I will create a group of legal experts so that they can see the impact of the law so far, where there are shortcomings, we will try to improve,” he said, as reported by NST.

Malaysian Digest then reached out to a legal practitioner from a Humans Rights organisation in hopes of better understanding how improvements with the law can help facilitate press freedom.

“The PPPA has been criticised for curtailing the freedom of speech in Malaysia, which is subject to any restriction Parliament may impose under Article 10 of the Constitution,” the legal practitioner explained.

“Therefore, it has been alleged that the Act empowers the Minister to exercise virtually total control over the print media.

“This criticism was intensified after a 1987 amendment to the Act established an ouster clause preventing actions of the Home Affairs Minister from being called into question by the courts.”

The legal practitioner with over two decades of experience under her belt went on to say that abolishing the Act will not only ensure press freedom, but will also permit the Home Affairs Ministry and press associations and houses to revolutionise the journalism industry.

As she emphasised that laws are meant to maintain genuine news, create a regulated press sector and provide legal guidelines to reporters and journalists alike, she deduced that some of the existing legislations are restricting political disclosure, silencing political opponents and manipulating the news delivered to consumers, whilst underlining that the existing laws are severely outdated.

“Back in 2012, the former government attempted to expand the Act to include electronic media and Internet media as blogs and online sources rapidly became a more popular choice amongst Malaysians, because online reports are allegedly more transparent than mainstream news.

“Although they retracted their statement several days later as electronic media falls under the jurisdiction of the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), in April of this year the Anti-Fake News Bill was gazetted,” she communicated.

Going back to the fact that the laws are passed down as legal guidelines for journalists and reporters as well as safeguarding journalistic integrity that is obtained through truthful and factual reporting, the legal practitioner urged the Home Affair Ministry, MCMC, ans the members of the journalism industry to establish new laws as pledged under PH’s manifesto in returning press freedom.

“The law plays a crucial role in materialising the goal, as the law not only filters lies and malicious news, it also sets press freedom apart from abuse of privilege,” she concluded.

- Malaysian Digest