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Prime minister urged to repeal restrictive laws, foster conditions necessary for national dialogue

(CIJ/IFEX) - The following is an 8 April 2009 statement by the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), an interim member of IFEX:

CIJ: Fearless reporting can only be achieved with a free media environment

In response to Prime Minister Najib Razak's speech on encouraging a national dialogue through the media, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) asks for a more concrete set of commitments in realizing the prime minister's vision. To foster a transparent "national discourse" that leads to the building of democracy, the government must first and foremost be willing to let the public set the agenda of the dialogue through an unrestricted media. Any government attempt to define the parameters for what constitute "fair" dialogues will not be reflective of the public's needs.

On 6 April 2009, Najib Razak spoke at the Malaysian Press Institute about the need for a "national discourse" epitomizing diverse political views and philosophies and a responsive media that is fearless and responsible in reporting. While agreeing with the need for an inclusive national discourse, the vision presupposes certain conditions which the prime minister has yet to publicly commit to. For one, the public must be empowered with access to information in order to participate in an informed and responsible debate. The existing control of information via the Official Secrets Act and a general culture of governmental secrecy do not inspire confidence for the new prime minister's vision. The law places disproportionate power on the Executive and bureaucrats, instead of the public for the sake of accountability.

Secondly, licensing of the media continues to impede fearless and responsible reporting. The licensing requirement and political ownership in the media create a condition where the ruling government's agenda could easily dominate the newsroom. As recently as March this year, deputy home minister Chor Chee Heung acknowledged routine surveillance and action against the media by the ministry. Without the relaxation of such controls, the newsroom will still have to play a cat-and-mouse game about the spaces they have in Najib's grand vision.

Thirdly, the public need to be convinced that they can speak out without any backlash against them. The Sedition Act, which covers sedition and seditious tendencies extremely broadly, and the Internal Security Act inculcate fear and discourage expression. Far from defining the rules of expression and encouraging self-regulation, the laws are a blanket ban that is easily subjected to abuse by the government.

CIJ calls for the repeal of the above laws as the first in the series of requirements to meet the vision set forth. In the midst of a general skepticism against the new administration, Najib must go beyond the rhetoric to demonstrate the sincerity of his "new way forward".

The Centre for Independent Journalism, Malaysia (CIJ) is a non-profit organisation that aspires for a society that is democratic, just and free where all people will enjoy free media and the freedom to express, seek, and impart information.

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