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CAPSULE REPORT: Media watchdog slams federal government for lack of media reforms

(CIJ/IFEX) - The following is a capsule report by the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), an interim member of IFEX:

Lack of political will from federal government for reform despite public demand

The Malaysian government under the Barisan Nasional party remained rooted in its approach and ignored calls for greater respect for freedom of expression despite a loud message from the public who voted for a much stronger opposition representation in the 2008 general elections, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) noted in its annual review launched on 22 January 2009.

The review noted that the government in 2008 has neither relaxed its legal restriction on freedom of expression nor committed in any concrete terms for any such plan. Change, however, was witnessed in the implementation of the laws.

In the right to freedom of assembly, the law was used inconsistently in favour of demonstrators aligned to the Barisan policy while clamping down on anti-establishment groups. In the online space, recognition was given to certain sites while critical bloggers continued to be targeted under existing laws. The licensing provision governing the media continued to be used on the mainstream publications and stations while opposition papers were granted permits to publish soon after the election. "It would indicate that the Barisan Nasional will be tougher on the institutions including the media, to address its defeat or insecurity following the general elections. These actions only point to a government that is less tolerant to the exercise of fundamental human rights, freedom of expression being one of them.

"Our monitoring shows that the mainstream media has very little room to operate to provide more balanced and accurate information, and the pressure is on the media bosses to spin the content. But this is precisely the kind of control that was rejected by many voters during the elections, who then turned to the online sources. So, the BN really has to change its course if it is sincere about winning public confidence," said CIJ executive director Gayathry Venkiteswaran.

However, the year was also marked by the public's various attempts to discuss issues of identity and religion and the resulting backlash. It is worrying that party-owned media joined in the fray without contributing to greater understanding on the long-standing issues by further emphasising the talks on racial, instead of national unity. The active portrayal of a scenario of doom for the Malay majority, through linking their well-being with that of the ruling coalition, impeded the year's progress towards more openness.

CIJ regrets that the selective granting of spaces are at best half-hearted measures in the face of increasing public demand for openness. The government's continued grip on the press and spaces of expression will continue to result in poor check and balances and further alienating the public.

On the other hand, states under the Pakatan Rakyat have taken steps towards openness, for example, the commitment of the Selangor and Penang state governments to introduce access to information laws. This is one of the measures necessary to put in place a more open, transparent and accountable government. "We hope that at the federal level, the disclosure on the highway agreements is the first step towards a more responsible government," Gayathry said, adding that the government has only defended the Official Secrets Act and rejected suggestion for an access to information law.

At the launch, CIJ introduced the badges "Hands Off! Journos at Work" to drive home the point that journalists need to work in a safe environment. All attacks from groups and individuals must be condemned and CIJ has been urging for investigations into these attacks to be given attention. "We find individuals and worse still, political leaders harassing journalists and we stress that this is completely unacceptable. There are many ways to register complaints or unhappiness with a media organisation over its coverage, but attacking the journalist in any way is out of the question.

"The Cabinet had said last year it wanted such incidents to stop, and we are still waiting for the outcome of that. The case in Parliament is also an example of preventing journalists from doing their work, and the solution is not to block but to consult media representatives on how best the media can work in a changed environment," she said.

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