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CIJ concerned over newspaper's decision to resort to self-censorship

(CIJ/IFEX) - 4 March 2010 - The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) is concerned about "The Star" newspaper's spiking of a column about the shari'ah law, following the issuing of a show-cause letter by the Ministry of Home Affairs for an earlier article on a related topic. Once again, the media has resorted to self-censorship in favour of the state and Muslim pressure groups, instead of upholding its check and balance role.

On 2 March, social activist and commentator Marina Mahathir, who has been writing for "The Star" for 20 years, updated on her blog that her "Musings" column - slated for publication on 3 March in "The Star" - was spiked. Marina said the reason for "The Star"'s censorship was to avoid the risk of losing its publication permit after a show-cause letter was recently issued over an article published in February by managing editor P. Gunasegaram, questioning the caning of three Muslim women under the shari'ah law.

Although the media is restricted under the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA), resorting to self-censorship demonstrates the medium's inability to read into readers' demands for the media to provide them with informed and balanced views. "The Star", which has one of the widest circulations in the country and recently launched its Malay weekly "Mingguan mStar", clearly has failed to respect the role of the media to provide different perspectives in news, information and opinions that benefit the public's right to information. It has caved in to pressure by the authorities and the Muslim groups which lodged a police report against the paper, first by publishing a public apology and later by taking P. Gunasegaram's column, "Persuasion, not Compulsion", off its website.

As "The Star" refused to publish Marina's column, which argues that shari'ah laws are man-made and like civil laws, should be open for debate, the writer posted the entry on her blog instead. This shows that, with the proliferation of online publishing platforms, the act of self-censorship is a futile one. When the censored content surfaces online, it only entrenches the public impression that the mainstream media is less reliable than their online counterpart.

CIJ urges the media to uphold its responsibilities as the fourth estate, and calls on the government to provide an environment for the media to operate freely. To achieve this end, the PPPA, as well as other restrictive laws must be repealed.

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