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Newspapers compelled to engage in self-censorship of election campaign coverage by delays in licence approvals

(SEAPA/IFEX) - SEAPA is concerned that the fate of two newspapers in Malaysia is being left hanging by the authorities following the expiration of their licences, and that this has had a debilitating effect on their coverage of news in the run-up to the nationwide elections.

The annual publishing permits for the Tamil-language "Makkal Osai" and the Mandarin-language "Oriental Daily" newspapers lapsed in December 2007 and their applications for new ones for the year have not been approved by outgoing Deputy Internal Security Minister Fu Ah Kiow, reports SEAPA's local partner, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), in a 21 February 2008 release ( ).

The two newspapers, seen as more critical than the other mainstream media closely tied to the government, have had to display a different stance after Parliament was dissolved on 13 February to make way for a general election on 8 March.

The "Oriental Daily" editor has reportedly issued a set of guidelines on election coverage, which includes no front-page coverage for the opposition. Articles are not to mention the opposition's mission to deny the incumbent government a two-thirds majority, nor the contentious issues of the ethnic Chinese, nor the "inflamatory" speeches by the opposition, reported the independent web-based daily Malaysiakini on 15 February.

CIJ, which is monitoring the media's election coverage, observes that "Makkal Osai" has started to publish news favouring the incumbent government, joining the usual clamour of mainstream newspapers.

"We are concerned that the requirement for a publication permit has been effective in silencing critical voices and controlling any attempt at editorial independence. By delaying approval but allowing the newspaper to continue operating using lapsed permits, the caretaker government is putting the newspapers at its mercy and sending a signal to their owners to be compliant," CIJ said in its release.

CIJ notes that this is the third time that "Oriental Daily" has been subjected to this bureaucratic impediment. In 2006, its permit was not renewed until May, after several critical columns had been discontinued. In 2002, its permit was suspended from September until December.

Meanwhile, unidentified callers have been warning "Makkal Osai" that it should be shut down, its general manager S.M. Periasamy told CIJ. Known for its critical position on issues related to the ethnic Indian-based political party leading the incumbent government, the newspaper was suspended for a month in August 2007, after party leaders clamoured for its closure for publishing an image of Jesus Christ with a cigarette and a can of drink.

Again, SEAPA joins CIJ in calling for the repeal of the Printing Presses and Publications Act, the law that is instrumental in keeping all mainstream media in check and preventing future independent publications (see IFEX alert of 8 February 2008). The predicament that "Oriental Daily" and "Makkal Osai" are now in demonstrates clearly the draconian nature of the law and its negative impact on the pluralism of coverage that is necessary for a thriving democracy. This could not have happened at a worse time, as Malaysians are about to go to the polls and will need a free media to inform them of all available options so that they may vote into power a government that will serve them well.

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