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People must reclaim media, make their voices heard, says CIJ

(CIJ/IFEX) - 3 May 2011 - World Press Freedom Day, which falls on 3 May, is an occasion to remember the challenges that journalists face in doing their jobs. Although the theme this year is "21st century media: New frontiers, new barriers", in Malaysia, the old barriers still loom large, especially repressive laws that have been so successful in taming print media that they are also used, or are being considered, for new media.

The Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 (PPPA) is one such law that has been so effective in muzzling the traditional media that the federal government is reportedly considering expanding its scope to include new media. Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein's statement that discussions are still at the early stages is hardly reassuring given the federal government's record of amending laws without public consultation with all stakeholder groups, and which usually ends with increased executive power.

The PPPA is a fine example of this. The clause which imposes a licensing regime for all serial publications was amended to remove any prospects of judicial challenge, giving the Minister the final and absolute decision.

At present, the PPPA not only tethers newspapers that are already controlled by the ruling party through direct or indirect ownership, but also opposition party organs, whose applications for new annual permits are constantly delayed. "Suara Keadilan", the monthly publication of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, has not received its permit since it expired on 30 June 2010 and has had to resort to creatively changing the name slightly every month, so as not to violate the law.

The consequences of the PPPA over the years have been dire. Mainstream press editors who have been held "hostage" by the law now accept the executive -"assigned" position of the press as publicist or, worse, propaganda arm - of the federal government. The newspapers report as a matter of fact the executive's intentions and initiatives, such as the Government Transformation Programme (GTP) updates and its first year report, as well as the New Key Results Area (NKRA) Media Blitz campaign by the Rural and Regional Development Ministry. What's more, top editors can be held responsible for coverage of crucial issues that result in unfavourable outcomes for authorities, as "The Star" was over the 9 March 2011 Al-Kitab report.

A hostile environment for press freedom can not only make it difficult for conscientious journalists to practice ethics in their daily work; it also increases the prevalence of self-censorship, resulting in important issues of public interest being suppressed and executive powers dangerously unchecked.

And if before journalists could barely make an unequivocal stand for press freedom, they are silenced now more than ever following the recent sacking of their union president, Mohamed Ha'ta Wahari, for daring to criticise the editors of the newspaper he was working for. On 21 April, a domestic inquiry found the senior "Utusan Malaysia" journalist guilty of tarnishing the newspaper's image in his press interviews and statements. Yet the UMNO-owned newspaper is the subject of a few defamation lawsuits by Federal Opposition politicians and has been actively agitating divisive positions on religion, ethnicity and minority issues to the point that even the MCA has called for a boycott of the newspaper.

There is another threat looming - the federal government has once again raised the proposal for a media council. Although it seems an ideal solution to addressing unethical reporting in a free environment - and may even be welcomed after the recent lows descended to by some mainstream media in a politically motivated attempt to implicate Federal Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim in yet another sex scandal - a media council in the current restrictive setting in Malaysia would essentially act as another level of control.

On World Press Freedom Day, we call on citizens and residents of Malaysia to speak up and reclaim the mainstream media. The recently ended Sarawak elections which saw the Federal Opposition gaining 45% of the popular vote should empower all Malaysians to make their demands heard, especially since a snap general election is expected this year or next.

We call for a parliamentary caucus on freedom of expression to conduct a comprehensive review of existing laws to ensure that they are consistent with the fundamental right to freedom of expression, which includes press freedom.

We demand media plurality, so that the public will have access to a wide variety of sources of information and can choose the media that practises ethical reporting.

It is time for the people to reclaim the mainstream media and help them restore the dignity and respect they once commanded, which will also ensure that journalists are able to do their job - safely, unhindered and ethically.

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