WORLD Press Freedom Day is celebrated annually on 3 May, and with this year’s theme “Media for Democracy” – it is time to reflect on the hopes and challenges faced by the press in our region and particularly in Malaysia Baharu, where the Pakatan Harapan government promised more transparency, accountability and the repeal of oppressive laws which have previously silenced the press and dissenting views.
A vibrant and free press is essential to any modern society, because it allows us to share and expand our knowledge, have important conversations on issues of public concern, and hold those in power to account. Freedom of speech, and particularly freedom of the press, must include the right to express unpopular or challenging views as well as those which follow mainstream narratives. The rewards are reaped not only by journalists, but by us, the citizens and people of the world, who have a right to be informed and participate in public life.
Southeast Asia has never been lauded as a global leader in press freedom, and it has been another dark year for the region in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Press Freedom Index 2019, with one notable glimmer of light in the form of Malaysia’s rise in the rankings. The RSF index scores and ranks 180 nations according to criteria such as media independence, pluralism, quality of legislative framework, prevalence of self-censorship and the safety of journalists.
All 10 Asean states are at the lower end of the scale, categorised as “bad” or “very bad” in terms of press freedom. Vietnam has the worst ranking in the region, and almost the lowest on the whole list, coming in at 176 out of 180 countries. Malaysia, on the other hand, has jumped a dramatic 22 places to be ranked at 123 and now fares the “best” of all the Asean countries.
Although united under the Asean banner, each of the 10 states retains their own unique system and culture, which inevitably results in a wide variety of approaches to the media. Indonesia was previously the leader of the Asean pack on the RSF index. Now one place behind Malaysia, Indonesia is hampered by the limited press access to the West Papua region due to sensitivities over the long-simmering independence movement.
The Philippines has regressed further, no doubt due to the ongoing harassment of Maria Ressa. The founder of online news website Rappler has faced numerous lawsuits and arrests after reporting on abuses carried out under President Duterte’s controversial war on drugs. Three journalists were also killed in the Philippines in 2019.
In Thailand, the military junta has considerable influence and power over the press, while Myanmar has just rejected the final appeal of Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were jailed for seven years while working on an investigation into the killing of ten Rohingya men and boys.
Most Cambodians only have access to major media outlets with links to Prime Minister Hun Sen, as others have been forced to close or bought over by individuals with ties to the government. In Singapore and Brunei, serious restrictions on the media mean that self-censorship is high. Laos and Vietnam fare the worst in the region, which may come as no surprise, given that both governments have almost total control of the media.
Against this backdrop of state control, repressive laws, censorship and violence, there are some advancements across the region, and particularly in Malaysia, almost one year after the government’s historic win in the 14th General Election in May 2018. But while things are looking up for the first time in many years, we must not become complacent or lose sight of the fact that press freedom in Malaysia is still considered to be in a “difficult situation” by the RSF report.
The Sedition Act is a hangover from the colonial-era which was used by the previous government to rein in dissent and stifle the media. The government promised to repeal it, but the moratorium issued in October last year was already suspended by December. While many of the previous cases have been withdrawn, it is concerning to see new investigations under this archaic and repressive legislation in 2019.
Similarly, although most cases under the Communications and Multimedia Act have been dropped, arrests and charges continue to be made for so called offensive postings online. Despite Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad admitting that the Official Secrets Act was misused against the press in the past, most notably in the 1MBD scandal, he said that it should and will remain law.
The Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) remains a thorn in the side of the press. The government promised to repeal the PPPA in its manifesto, but there has been no development on this front since they came into power. All printing presses, publishers and distributors must have a licence or permit to operate, which can be granted or removed at the total discretion of the Home Affairs Minister. All publishers run the risk that any offending publications could result in a prohibition order, imprisonment up to three years, a fine up to RM20,000 or their entire operation being shut down.
With these threats to free speech still lurking in our legal system, how is it that Malaysia has managed to improve press freedom, and how can we make greater strides in future?
An achievement for the government has been to repeal the Anti-Fake News Act. Despite opposition in the Dewan Negara, the law is no longer in use and there is a continued commitment that it will be repealed eventually.
Many of the major newspapers are owned or controlled by the previous ruling political parties, now in opposition. Under the new government, there is less overt interference in the mainstream press, and the independent press has flourished even more. But ownership of media outlets remains a problem in Malaysia. Measures to limit political party shares in mainstream media to 10% are being considered by the government, but with no concrete plans in place.
However, it is already evident that a more balanced range of views are being openly expressed, both for and against the government, as it should be in a democracy. The previous government had a track record of harsh attacks on the media. The offices of The Edge newspaper, news websites The Malaysian Insider and Malaysiakini were raided by authorities, the whistle blower website Sarawak Report, among others, were blocked, and cartoonist Zunar was charged for sedition and banned from travelling overseas.
The possibility of establishing a self-regulating media council has been explored and is receiving support from the government. This may be a positive move for Malaysia, as similar bodies have been successful elsewhere, including the Indonesian Press Council which has helped to protect press freedom from government interference, mediate on disputes and bring more independence to the country’s media.
There has undoubtedly been a positive shift to a more relaxed media environment, of which Malaysia should be proud. But in the wake of World Press Freedom Day, it is important to acknowledge our progress without losing sight of the work still to be done. The establishment of a self-regulating media council, positive political shifts and attitudinal changes must also be accompanied by legal reform. The government has the opportunity to make further progress and keep its promises to remove oppressive laws, strengthen free speech and with it, our democracy. Change won’t happen overnight, but with all of Asean still struggling to embrace freedom of the press, Malaysia must continue on this path and help to lead the way.
Eric Paulsen is Malaysia’s Representative to the Asean Intergovernmental Commission of Human Rights (AICHR).