The media has an important role to play in a democracy as the ‘Fourth Estate’; amongst others to expose injustice and wrongdoings and to provide a platform for debate and the exchange of ideas. A free, pluralistic and independent media, on all platforms, is important to facilitate good governance and transparency.
If the media in a country is not free, it will have an effect on other fundamental freedoms in a State. Thus, freedom of the press is an important pillar of democracy.
Without it, democracy will be crippled.
According to the Press Freedom Index 2016, Malaysia is ranked 146 out of 180 countries when it comes to press freedom. We improved our position ever so slightly from 2015 when we were ranked number 145. Yet we are still behind other countries in the region such as Indonesia (130), Thailand (136) and the Philippines (138). In fact, according to the Index, the media in Timur Leste enjoys more freedom (ranked 99).
Yet at the same time, our position in the Index is not surprising. The media in Malaysia is faced with many restrictions in the form of repressive laws and authorities who have no qualms about enforcing those laws.
We have, for example, the Printing Presses and Publications Act. In order to publish a publication such as a newspaper or a magazine, a licence must first be obtained from the Home Ministry. The Act also empowers the Home Minister to suspend or revoke this licence for certain reasons.
Over the past few years, we have seen how two newspapers have been suspended by the Home Minister by enforcing the Printing Presses and Publications Act. In one instance, the suspension was set aside by the Court, but the damage would have been done to the publication; the period before the suspension is lifted would certainly have a financial impact on the publication.
There are also other laws which restrict the freedom of the press. The Sedition Act, Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act and certain offences within the Penal Code can and have been used on journalists and the media.
We have seen how last year 5 personnel of a now defunct online media portal were arrested and detained overnight because of investigations under the Sedition Act.
Many other journalists have also been called up for questioning under various laws for reports which they have written.
There is also the Official Secrets Act, which makes it an offence to reveal anything that has been classified as official secrets. This includes publication in the media of matters which is categorised as official secrets.
Online media in Malaysia has traditionally enjoyed more freedom than the print and broadcast media. However, this may change in the future as it has been reported that moves are afoot to require the online media to register with the authorities. We do not have details of this plan, but if it does go through it will be a further setback for press freedom in the country.
All these repressive laws are no longer relevant in modern democracy and have the effect of crippling democratic freedoms. They create a situation in which the media is not able to carry out its role in full as the Fourth Estate. These laws will always hang over the heads of media practitioners; a constant ‘threat’ of criminal sanctions from the State.
Of course, the media too must be responsible in its reporting. Yet, it should not be the State’s role to ensure that this happens as the mechanisms may be used by the Government for their own benefit. For example, if the State is tasked to utilise a piece of legislation when media does not report responsibly, the Government may use the law on a troublesome media outlet (in the eyes of the Government) and claim that the said outlet has been irresponsible.
A better mechanism is by way of creating a National Media Council, made out of
media practitioners. It will be a self-regulatory body which can receive public complaints on the media.
The Council can hold public hearings and would be empowered to censure the media and find them guilty of breaching a code of ethic. Such censures must then be published or broadcast prominently within the offending media.
This method of self-regulating the media have been successful in other jurisdictions and it lessens the need to bring matters to Court, which will entail significant financial costs and time on parties involved.
A wholesale review must be made of laws which severely restrict the media. Abolishing repressive laws is a must and at the same time, we must seriously look at
the viability of a National Media Council. Only then can we improve our standing
when it comes to freedom of the press.