Not the superlative we want

WHILE our government tries to tell us that we’re on the up and up despite having no money, in one area at least we’ve taken a deep plunge. We’ve managed to dive 18 places in the World Press Freedom Index 2021 to the 199th spot, an “astonishing fall, ” according to Reporters Sans Frontieres who does the ranking every year. We may love superlatives in our country but achieving the biggest fall of any of the 180 countries in the index should probably not go into the Malaysian Book of Records.

Nobody with any common sense will be surprised of course that our nose-dive happens to coincide with the change in government last February. Not two years before that, Malaysians woke up with a new sense of freedom. Reporters suddenly looked excited about delivering the news because they were no longer constrained. People were tuning in to TV news programmes and talk shows again because they finally felt they were getting something worthwhile from them, instead of the barely hidden propaganda previously.

So, we rose in the press freedom ranks, not to astronomical levels, since we still had certain laws hanging over our heads that the government then had promised to repeal. None of that had time to happen before a whole new set of politicians decided to swoop in and take over.

And then there was Covid. The greatest public health emergency in a century swept every single country and has now infected an astounding 141 million people and killed more than three million. Our contribution has not been too bad, at 377,000 infections and 1386 dead, if we’re looking at it from the point of view of the United States. For those of us actually living in Malaysia however, it’s been an unmitigated disaster.

There’s no need to reiterate how much suffering the pandemic has caused, not just by those who have been infected and lost their lives or those of their loved ones but also by those whose livelihoods disappeared almost overnight. Alongside the virus pandemic, other pandemics have emerged including the mental health one, the domestic violence one and not to forget, the misinformation one. In the first half of 2020, the Health Ministry recorded 465 cases of attempted suicide. Malaysians are depressed because they are worried after losing their jobs and incomes, but there just aren’t enough counsellors and psychiatrists to help them manage these emotional crises.

Do we get any empathy though? Instead, we get scolded every day for not following the SOPs in speeches, in the media and even via SMS.

Harsh penalties are imposed on those who have violated them, a necessary measure if only they weren’t so selectively imposed. My eyebrows were raised at a headline that said a honeymooning couple were fined for lying about the reason why they crossed state lines despite the ban on interstate travel. They turned out to be some unknown newlyweds, not famous ones who have yet to be charged with anything.

These are the sorts of inequalities that are making ordinary people totally fed-up. You would think after innumerable cases of some people being given special treatment despite obvious and major violations of SOPs, and the tremendous clapping-back that the public has given, the government would be chastened and at least make an attempt at fairness. But no, they continue ignoring the swelling tides of dissatisfaction.

I’m amazed at how people still are able to show their dissent despite the increasingly narrow space for anyone to voice it. After a judge decided that Malaysiakini should be censured because its readers made comment the government doesn’t like, we can almost give up hope on ever having any freedom to speak or express ourselves, despite these being Constitutional rights. How not to get a chill down the spine when the judgment leaves media at risk of gigantic fines or jail if someone decides to deliberately leave a provocative comment on their website? It doesn’t even matter if the comment was immediately taken down. What a great way to get rid of pesky news sites that constantly snipe at the government.

Yet Malaysians don’t give up hope. They continue to say their piece, through cartoons, on social media and even through the courts. The Emergency Ordinance, that shameful act of suspending Parliament under the weakest of excuses, is meeting resistance from all right-minded citizens. With EMCOs, MCOs and clusters being announced every day and numbers of infections rising, who truly believes that the Emergency is meant to manage the pandemic? Perhaps only the tiny cluster that will benefit from it.

Our leaders like to rail against “fake news”, even enacting a law against it under the Emergency ordinance. This is exactly what is making us slide to the bottom of the World Press Freedom Index. But you have to wonder who is delivering the untruthful news when an Emergency is passed ostensibly to manage the pandemic, yet the numbers have been continually rising?

Marina Mahathir is wondering if the endless statistics thrown at us each day is meant to numb us, rather than make us understand numbers. The views expressed here are solely her own.

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