Uproar in Parliament as minister boasts Perikatan only took ‘20 hours’ to commit to press freedom

Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah speaks at a press conference at his ministry in Putrajaya June 17, 2020. — Picture by Choo Choy May
Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah speaks at a press conference at his ministry in Putrajaya June 17, 2020. — Picture by Choo Choy May

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 4 — Pandemonium broke out this evening in the Dewan Rakyat over the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government’s commitment towards press freedom in Malaysia.

The war of words started when Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah made a barbed remark while replying Kluang MP Wong Shu Qi who questioned his motives in using the National Film Development Corporation (Finas) Act 1981 against international news outlet Al Jazeera.

“When you raised the question in Parliament on July 23 morning, I gave you a reply,” Saifuddin told Wong, referring to his previous parliamentary reply when she asked if his ministry plans to make it compulsory for mainstream media agencies or personal users who produce films on social media platforms to apply for a Film Production Licence and Filming Authentication Certificate (SPP).

“That very night, the Cabinet decided to give assurance that it was committed to uphold press and individual freedom, including amending the Finas Act.

“We did it in 20 hours, but in 20 months you did nothing,” he added, this time referring to the previous Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration that had been in power from May 2018 until February this year.

Wong and several other Opposition MPs immediately jumped to their feet, demanding Saifuddin explain why he invoked the Finas Act on Al Jazeera, and subsequently triggered an ongoing investigation on Bangladeshi national Rayhan Kabir who appeared in the Qatari news agency’s controversial documentary titled Lockup up in Malaysia’s Lockdown.

Saifuddin, who was previously PH secretariat chief, then accused the Opposition lawmakers of politicising the issue.

“If you want a political answer, I’ll give you one.

“Imagine this: the Malaysian public and frontliners (during the Covid-19 outbreak) have developed a symbiotic relationship.

“If there are people who accuse the frontliners, it’s a situation like when you pinch your right thigh, the left thigh will feel it too,” Saifuddin said, using a Malay idiom, “bahkan cubit peha kanan, peha kiri akan terasa juga” to describe the relationship between Malaysians and the health workers who have been battling the Covid-19 pandemic during the movement control order.

Saifuddin reiterated that the PN government has given its assurance that it will amend the Finas Act.

He added that the other laws concerning media freedom and national security will also be amended to reflect current technological developments, listing as examples the Official Secrets Act 1972, Sedition Act 1948, Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, Communication and Multimedia Act 1998 and the Copyright Act 1987.

“The government is willing to amend and improve these laws if there are any weaknesses to it,” he said.

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