KUALA LUMPUR, April 11 — Datuk Seri Najib Razak has today criticised a “previous leader” of the country for his track record in press freedom, while launching the inaugural National Journalists’ Day.
Najib, now a caretaker prime minister after Parliament’s dissolution on Saturday, said the federal government under his previous administration had instead facilitated press freedom.
“This is clearly different from the track record in press freedom during the era of the key leader of the current administration, that previously ‘ruled the country for 22 years’,” he said in his speech.
The Barisan Nasional (BN) chairman did not mention any names, but seemed to allude to former prime minister-turned-political nemesis Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who governed Malaysia between 1981 and 2003.
Najib cited 1987’s Operasi Lalang where over 100 people were detained without trial under the Internal Security Act and three newspapers — The Star, Sin Chew Jit Poh and Watan — had their printing permits suspended.
He said the international body, Committee to Protect Journalists, had, for three consecutive years from 1999 to 2001, named the still-unnamed leader as one of the “10 enemies of the press”.
“What an accomplishment,” Najib added, mockingly.
Dr Mahathir, who was formerly BN chairman and the country’s longest-serving prime minister, is now the chairman of the federal Opposition pact, Pakatan Harapan.
In the same speech, Najib said his own administration had facilitated freedom of speech by abolishing the ISA and by introducing the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012.
He said the federal government had in 2012 also abolished the need for publications to renew their printing permits on an annual basis, asserting that this had allowed pro-opposition newspapers like Harakah, Roket and Siasah to be published without restrictions.
He noted that news portals that were critical of the federal government were still allowed to operate.
Najib said however that freedom of speech and press freedom should be paired with a responsible attitude where information of unknown origin and untrustworthy sources should not be spread, also saying that media freedom should be based on the truth and verified information and sources.
He also pointed out the third principle for media freedom, saying that the local media should follow local sensitivities and “local culture” and “not following the mould from the West” or universal interpretations of freedom of speech and press freedom.
He said there must be limits to press freedom and freedom of speech, adding that such freedoms should not be used to spread fake news to the extent of affecting public security and national stability.
Malaysia was ranked 144th out of 180 countries in the global Press Freedom Ranking last year by Reporters Without Borders.
Najib’s comments came ahead of the 14th general election scheduled for next month. The campaign period for the election is just over two weeks away.