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KUALA LUMPUR, April 22 — Malaysia showed the greatest improvement in a 2020 global index measuring press freedom in 180 countries and regions, again topping the South-east Asian or Asean region just like it did in the 2019 edition.
In the annual World Press Freedom index by non-profit group Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Malaysia leapt 22 spots to 101st in the 2020 index.
“The big rises by Malaysia (up 22 at 101st) and Maldives (up 19 at 79th) confirm the dramatic effect that a change of government through the polls can have in improving the environment for journalists and combating self-censorship,” the organisation said when noting the two countries that recorded the biggest improvements in the 2020 edition of the index that was recently released.
In the country profile for Malaysia, RSF described the country’s press freedom as receiving a breath of “fresh air” after a surprising first-ever defeat of Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s ruling coalition in the May 2018 general elections, noting that blacklisted news sites like Sarawak Report has been able to resume working without fear of harassment.
“The general environment for journalists is much more relaxed, self-censorship has declined dramatically and the print media are now offering a fuller and more balanced range of viewpoints, including support for the new ruling coalition, and support for the old ruling coalition, now in opposition.
But RSF noted that archaic laws still remain in Malaysia as a continuing threat to press freedom.
“The new government has kept its promise to repeal the Orwellian provisions of the anti-fake news law adopted by the outgoing government.
“But the authorities still have a draconian legislative arsenal with which to suppress media freedom, an arsenal that includes the 1948 Sedition Act, the 1972 Official Secrets Act and the 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act.
“Under these laws, which need a complete overhaul, the authorities have strict control over publication licences and journalists can be sentenced to 20 years in prison on sedition charges. They pose a constant threat to media personnel, who still cannot express themselves with complete freedom, despite all the progress,” the organisation said.
The RSF, whose annual index measures the press freedom situation globally for the previous year, appears to be referring to the situation under the Pakatan Harapan coalition which had taken over in May 2018. Malaysia is now under a new ruling coalition since early March following yet another shift in power.
Malaysia top in Asean
The country with the best ranking for press freedom is Norway, for the fourth year in a row, with others rounding up the top 10 being Finland, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Switzerland, New Zealand and Portugal.
In the 2020 index, Malaysia outranked its regional peers in Asean, including Indonesia (119), the Philippines (136), Myanmar (139), Thailand (140), Cambodia (144), Brunei (152), Singapore (158), Laos (172) and Vietnam (178).
Similarly in the 2019 index, Malaysia placed ahead of its regional peers at the 123rd spot, followed by Indonesia (124), Philippines (134), Thailand (136), Myanmar (138), Cambodia (143), Singapore (151), Brunei (152), Laos (171), Vietnam (176).
But this was not always the case, with Malaysia previously lagging behind its Asean peers.
In the 2018 edition of the index, Indonesia led in the Asean region at the 124th spot, followed by Philippines (133), Myanmar (137), Thailand (140), Cambodia (142), while Malaysia was at the 145th spot, followed by Singapore (151), Brunei (153), Laos (170), Vietnam (175).
A similar situation was seen in the 2017 edition, Indonesia (124), Philippines (127), Myanmar (131), Cambodia (132), Thailand (142), Malaysia (144), Singapore (151), Brunei (156), Laos (170) and Vietnam (175), while in the 2016 edition, the Asean region was led by Cambodia (128), followed by Indonesia (130), Thailand (136), Philippines (138), Myanmar (143), Malaysia (146), Singapore (154), Brunei (155), Laos (173) and Vietnam (175).
Asean according to press freedom categories
Based on each country or region’s score for press freedom, the World Press Freedom Index places them in the five categories of good situation (white) for a range of 0 to 15 points, fairly good or satisfactory situation (yellow) for scores of 15.01 to 25 points, problematic situation (orange) (25.01 to 35 points), difficult situation (red) (35.01 to 55 points) and very serious situation (black) (55.01 to 100 points).
For the 2020 World Press Freedom index, Malaysia was placed in the problematic situation (orange) category in terms of press freedom, while neighbours Indonesia, Philippines, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Brunei were in the difficult situation (red) category, with Singapore, Laos, Vietnam placed in the very serious (black) category.
This is the first time that Malaysia has improved its score to be placed in the orange category, having been placed in the more severe category of red since the scoring system of 0 to 100 points was introduced by RSF in 2013.
This marks an improvement for Malaysia, as it found itself in the same category of red in 2019, like most of its peers — Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Singapore, Brunei, while Laos and Vietnam were the only ones in Asean in the very serious (black) category for the 2019 index.
In the 2018 index, all Asean nations were in the red category, except for Laos and Vietnam that again landed in the black category.
Malaysia over the years
Malaysia has improved considerably in the 2020 edition and 2019 edition of the World Press Freedom Index, with a considerably higher ranking and managing to have a reduced global score as compared to previous years. A lower score indicates a better situation.
The RSF’s World Press Freedom Index is based on qualitative analysis of six criteria — pluralism of opinions represented in the media; media independence; media environment and self-censorship; the impact of the legislative framework governing news and information activities; transparency of institutions and procedures affecting news production and information; and the quality of infrastructure supporting news production — coupled with quantitative data on abuses and acts of violence against journalists during the previous year.
According to the RSF, the index does not rank public policies of governments and is not an indicator of the quality of journalism in each country or region.