Prescribing press freedom in Malaysia

MAY 4 — The fact that Malaysia attained the 144th slot in the Reporters Without Borders’ 2017 Press Freedom Ranking of 180 countries leaves a bad taste in the mouth for it obviously indicates Malaysia’s poor standing as far as press freedom and freedom of expression are concerned. 

Clearly, this ranking is nothing to be joyous about. If anything, there’s a lot to be concerned about. 

It does not come as a surprise though to many of us in the wake of what has happened in recent times when press freedom and other civil liberties encounter immense challenges from the powers-that-be. 

Not too long ago, for instance, Malaysian journalists were banned from the Parliament’s lobby area by the Speaker of the otherwise august Dewan Rakyat, thereby preventing them from having direct access to information sought from politicians concerned. 

This is the very place where vital issues confronting the nation are often discussed and debated, the results of which would have far-reaching implications on the general public. 

And yet, ordinary Malaysians are deprived of such important information when journalists are prevented from seeking answers on their behalf within the lobby area. 

Press freedom is also curtailed when the range of media diversity is acutely narrowed by the ruling elite through the media laws particularly the Printing Presses and Publications Act by which the Home Minister is empowered to decide who will be accorded the publishing permit and printing licence. 

Diversity of media is important because it means the larger society has access to various kinds of publications to cater to the needs and interests of varied sectors of the community, which includes the minorities, the disabled, the marginalised and a wide spectrum of political viewpoints. 

The tendency of the powers-that-be to regulate and restrict the range of media diversity is well encapsulated by an exchange in a Dewan Rakyat session on March 31, 2014 when MP for Nibong Tebal Mansor Othman demanded the reason as to why the newspaper permit application for FZ Daily and Malaysiakini (and also Suara Keadilan) was rejected. 

The Home Minister replied that the number of newspaper titles at the time was sufficient to cater to the needs of the existing population in the country. 

To have more than that, he insisted, would mean an avalanche of news from various perspectives that would likely confuse the readers. 

Needless to say, the ruling politicians would often patronisingly assume that the man and woman in the street are susceptible to confusion as if they are all as imbecilic as some politicians. 

This inclination of the state to prescribe the general public with its own version of information and news is implied by the launch of the government’s SEBENARNYA.MY (“The Truth”) portal last March in the purported endeavour “to curb the spread of false news and ensure the public receive real news.” 

Granted that there are indeed fake news and information that are being peddled through all types of media, including the mainstream media, but surely it doesn’t warrant the provision of “truthful” information from a government that is deeply afflicted with truth deficit. In other words, such “truthful” news would be likely perceived as an alternative fact. 

This aversion to various shades of opinions and information on the part of the powers-that-be is further exemplified by the warning issued recently by no less than the director-general of Public Service Department, Zainal Rahim Seman, to government scholarship recipients: they would lose the sponsorship should they involve themselves in criticising the government. 

Apart from the fact that this high official in the government is unable or refuses to acknowledge that the scholarships come from the taxpayers’ money, and not the sitting government, the freedom of expression of the targeted students, which is part of their human rights, would be stifled. 

Besides, solely reading books like a programmed robot without caring two hoots about the socio-political environment around them is not exactly an idea of higher education, in case Zainal himself needs reminding. 

The reported intent of the government to police the use of text messaging service WhatsApp violates freedom of expression as well as invades the privacy of those who communicate through this channel of communication. 

Such a move can only be read as encouraging people to exercise unnecessary self-censorship, which can be contagious. 

One of the reasons why social media such as WhatsApp has become increasingly popular among ordinary Malaysians is because they provide accessibility and ease to communicate with each other in the face of restrictions, such as censorship, in the mainstream media and, to a certain extent, in news portals. 

It also suggests Malaysians’ thirst for freedom of expression. 

After almost 60 years of political independence in peninsular Malaysia, and nearly 54 years after the formation of Malaysia, the country has instead regressed so much in terms of press freedom and freedom of expression. 

This goes to show that we must be vigilant when it comes to the struggle for, and protection of, such freedoms because they don’t come on a silver platter in the real world. Neither does democracy. 

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.