KUALA LUMPUR, June 6 — The formation of an independent media council for the self-regulation of the local press must be a priority before the government’s proposed centre for journalism, industry groups said.

Commenting on Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s suggestion to establish such a centre during the National Journalists Day (Hawana) 2022 celebration, the groups lauded the proposal but said it should not detract from the still-unmet objective of self-regulation.

The industry groups said Malaysian media continued to face interference as well as intimidation from the authorities, such as police investigations on journalists over their reportage.

The Foreign Correspondents Club of Malaysia (FCCM) said the proposed centre would be a welcome addition to the country’s journalism landscape provided it was accessible to all and not restricted to outlets deemed “official” media.

“However, what the industry needs right now are real and serious guarantees that we can do our jobs without undue pressure,” a spokesman from FCCM told Malay Mail.

These guarantees should come in the form of protection for journalists and their sources from harassment and intimidation, greater access to official information, and the establishment of an independent media council, the group said.

FCCM also pointed out that the media council was already long in the works, and should be prioritised before exploring other initiatives.

According to Gerakan Media Merdeka (GeramM), the need for the proposed journalism centre was far lower than that of an independent council for the industry, which remained urgently required for journalists to operate without fear of persecution or harassment.

“Independent would mean it’s free from the clutches (of the government). The government can act as a bridge between journalists and the civil societies and media owners, but not as the controller,” the group told Malay Mail.

The group added that it currently remained easy for journalists to be exploited for political purposes.

Such calls to prioritise the independent media council were also echoed by other industry groups such as the National Union of Journalists Malaysia (NUJM) and Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ).

NUJM president Farah Marshita Abd Patah also pointed out that the framework for the independent council has already been put in place, and all that was needed was for the government to formally adopt it.

Saying that Malaysia was already behind neighbours such as Indonesia and Timor Leste in establishing such councils, she argued that it would be far more effective in combating the fake news phenomenon and addressing industry matters.

“If a (independent) media council is passed through a parliamentary act, it will be binding and legally recognised — an independent body that acts as an umbrella for all organisations.

“Both members and the public can come to the council for complaints and mediations,” she said, adding that the initial proposal came during the Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration, but now has come to a halt since the change in government.

CIJ executive director Wathshlah G. Naidu explained that the independent council would reconcile the various reporting mediums in the country and establish standards and guidelines for responsible and ethical journalism.

On May 29, Ismail Sabri made the recommendation to establish a centre for journalism studies, saying that the centre could collect reference data from various studies conducted to strengthen journalism in Malaysia.

He said the centre could also involve interaction with various social fields spanning different cultural contexts.

For that purpose, he urged that the centre be established in this state, taking into consideration its historical links with the development of journalism.