We should not register online news portals

AUG 10 — One big news last week was that the government is mulling the registration of online news portals in future. But there is a strange disconnect between the supposed rationale and the examples cited to support the idea.

In an exclusive interview with The Star published August 6, Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Seri Dr Salleh Said Keruak said his ministry is studying several models including that of Singapore. “This is being done in national interest.”

Two days later, he blogged to clarify this point further. He pointed to English defamation laws and libel laws in the United Kingdom and how they apply to online publishing. He stated that the government will study “the norm” in advanced countries that uphold freedom of speech so that Malaysia follows “international standards.” 

One question emerges: The minister talks quite a bit about malicious messages and sending obscene articles and defamation laws in both the interview and on his blog, but what have they got to do with registering online news portals?

Laws in place

Of course the registration of online news portals is not the only thing the ministry is proposing. However, going by the examples and arguments raised by the minister thus far, it is completely unnecessary. 

Defamation and libel issues? Sue the organisation. The prime minister himself has certainly found legal avenues to press such issues against online news media. No reason why anyone else in the country can’t do so too.

Concerns over people being harassed with unsolicited links to indecent or menacing or grossly offensive articles? Lodge a police report. Harassment is harassment regardless of medium, isn’t it? Surely our sometimes efficient police force is well equipped legally to handle such cases.

By any measure I imagine we have adequate laws in place to deal with malicious reporting and any other misdeeds imaginable when it comes to online news portals. So why does the specific point of registering online news portal srise? It makes no sense.

In fact the minister seems to have not felt it necessary to explain why the registration proposal was mooted at all. Is this sabre-rattling after all?

Another albatross

If the registration of online news portals becomes a reality in Malaysia, this would likely have the same effect as the current requirement of a Home Ministry-granted publishing licence for anyone wishing to start a print publication.  

The power of the ministry to revoke this licence at any given time is an albatross around a licensed publisher’s neck. They are constantly aware that this power, without warning, may become a political tool to silence dissent or unfavourable reporting. 

Publishers may even hold back on certain news coverage to be safe. Should online news portals be also subjected to this restraint, it would effectively spread self-censorship from print to online media and stifle news reporting.

Online news editors would be looking over their shoulders constantly for fear of suspension. 

And with plenty of options, including legal recourse, against any number of negative scenarios imaginable when it comes to online news portals, why would we want to register them? It only creates another form power against free media that is open to abuse. 

Towards a fully free society

On the contrary, if national interest is really to be upheld, we need to further proliferate the media, not add another means for the government to breathe heavily down its neck. Free access to news and information will only contribute to our collective growth as a society.

As the prime minister famously said in August 2011, censorship is no longer effective and should be reviewed in keeping with the times. It follows that we should remove the means through which the media can be censored.

That means going the opposite direction from the proposal to register online news portals – not just scrapping this ludicrous proposal but also removing the requirement for print licences altogether. 

Let anyone who wants to publish news, whether in print or online, do so. Let market forces decide whether the news operations sink or swim financially. If the news reported is false, the law can be brought upon to bear. 

(And no right-minded publishers will want to risk lawsuits over false news anyway.) 

As the prime minister himself very perceptively remarked in 2011: “If (news reports are) defamatory, we can resort to legal means.”

How much freedom accorded to our media comes down to what sort society we want to progress towards and whether there is political will to respond to what the public wants in the matter.

So do we want a free Malaysian society backed by a free media? Because if we do, I cannot help but recall wise words spoken by Australian politican Malcolm Turnbull in 2011 on why Australia should not license either newspapers or websites:

“If you are going to license newspapers, why not websites? We would be just walking away from so many tenets of a free society. There really should be no licensing restrictions on people owning newspapers or publishing on websites.”

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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