Malaysia: After Decades of Autocracy, How Do You Rebuild a Free Press?

A Splice Original

Now that the dust has settled following Malaysia’s unprecedented election result in May, which saw the Barisan Nasional coalition ousted for the first time in the country’s history, journalists want the new Pakatan Harapan government to realize promises made during the heat of the campaign.

We spoke to Malaysian journalists about just what changes they would like to see to government rules, regulations and policies that have long impacted their work.

Printing Presses & Official Secrets

Leading the calls to repeal the Printing Presses and Publication Act 1984 is Malaysia’s Institute of Journalists. The effort to scrap this act is described as a battle by most, if not all journalists in the country, say IOJ board member Priya Kulasegaran.

A former print reporter for The Star, she says the legislation — which regulates the licensing and operations of Malaysian media outlets — has instilled a culture of self-censorship in most newsrooms, from newsgathering to copy editing.

Senior newsman Parkaran Krishnan Kutty, who spent 20 years with The Star and is now a producer for Al Jazeera English, remembers when in October 1987 the Barisan Nasional government, led by first-time Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, launched a crackdown that saw the arrest of activists and politicians and the closure of several newspapers.

Another hindrance to investigative reporting is the Official Secrets Act 1972, which has been used in the past to prosecute journalists and bloggers, with these journalists saying it must be reviewed or repealed.

And Parkaran says whistleblowers should be given greater protection by amending the Whistleblowers Protection Act 2010.

“For example, allow whistleblowers to report cases to the media or other public agencies, instead of only to enforcement agencies. Also remove limits on the types of information disclosure permitted and protected,” he says.

Repealing laws, revamping licensing rules, improving access to information. @susantam spoke to Malaysia’s journalists about their wishlist for the government.

A Revamp of Licensing

Meanwhile, Edge Media Group publisher Ho Kay Tat says current licensing, which is at the discretion of the Home Affairs Minister, restricts the freedom to publish.

“The licensing requirement should be replaced by a requirement that anyone who wants to publish has to register their company and their publishing titles with the ministry,” he says.

“There are enough laws, [for] example defamation law, to ensure that publishers are accountable for any wrong reports they publish,” he adds.

Quick Fix for Fake News

Just one month before the polls, the then-government drafted the Anti-Fake News Act 2018, which was enacted in record time.

Priya from the IOJ recalls attending one of the public consultation sessions held the week before the bill was passed.

“One of our feedback to the then-government was that they had so many laws against the media, so there was no need for another law,” she says.

Priya feels they rushed the bill to fit their political agenda and muzzle opposing voices with its broad coverage and definitions. As well as imposing tough penalties, the law allows charges to be brought against individuals based outside Malaysia, so long as the alleged ‘fake news’ involves Malaysia or a Malaysian citizen.

And though parliament voted to repeal the bill in August, the Senate recently struck down the measure, meaning that charges can still be brought.

Improving Access to Information

R.AGE deputy editor Ian Yee says the PPPA and Anti-Fake News Act have created a culture of fear amongst reporters. But now is the time to look toward the future, Yee says.

“After we’ve removed that [legislation], we have to make sure we fill that vacuum with something positive, a culture that encourages brave journalism — like a FOIA,” he adds.

Many journalists in Malaysia want the government to enhance access to public data by enacting the Freedom of Information Act nationwide. Currently only Penang and Selangor enforce this legislation.

And Khaw Chia Hui, a freelance journalist with The News Lens, says there have been a number of hiccups with regards to its implementation.

“Journalists have to check the status of application to information every month and even if you appeal the rejections, there is no guarantee you will receive the documents or a valid explanation,” she says.

Journalists are all too familiar with Mahathir’s iron fist.

Mahathir’s reputation as an authoritarian leader was so ingrained that he was named not once, but twice, as one of the 10 Worst Enemies of the Press by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Now, he is the very person tasked with overhauling a repressive system.

“As pledged in its manifesto, [the government] must repeal the PPPA which is hanging like a sword of Damocles hanging over the media’s heads,” Parkaran says.

Parkaran expresses caution about political promises, but hopes that Mahathir may allow easing of media restrictions now he is a member of a different political coalition, with press freedom advocates in decision-making positions.

“The kind of open reports and discussions we have in the media today is testimony to that hope,” he says.

This story appeared originally on the website  of Splice and is reposted here with permission.
Susan Tam is a freelance journalist based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She has reported on global affairs for Al Jazeera English TV, on regional issues for Singapore Press Holdings and The Star, and as a freelancer for CNN International and Yahoo. Susan specializes in social issues, policy developments and the retail sector.  @susantam

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