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CIJ concerned over proposed media consultative council

(CIJ/IFEX) - The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) Malaysia strongly opposes the media consultative council that the Malaysian government is planning to establish with the ministries of Home Affairs and Information, Communication and Culture.

In a 26 July 2011 statement, CIJ executive officer Masjaliza Hamzah said, "It is clear from the objectives of this proposed council that it will be yet another layer of control on the media, in addition to the myriad laws that already curb media freedom and have long stunted the proper growth of an independent and ethical Malaysian media."

Among the objectives of the council are:
• To provide a "forum that ensures harmonious cooperation between government and media";
• To ensure that the "systems and culture of information dissemination and sharing between government and media" are implemented in a "fair, accurate and balanced manner"; and
• To ensure "national interest as a joint responsibility of all", including media.

"Although media freedom is one of the stated objectives, this is mere lip service at work since it is being promoted only within the context of existing legislation and national interest – not the public interest," said Masjaliza.

Existing repressive legislation includes the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA), Official Secrets Act, Sedition Act, Internal Security Act and Communications and Multimedia Act.

"If the ruling government is serious about fostering media freedom, it should repeal all repressive laws and let the media self-regulate, with input from civil society and in the interest of the public.

"Further, to ensure that media gets 'fair, accurate, and balanced' information, as mentioned, the government should establish an environment where transparency and good governance is part and parcel of its conduct. Information of public interest held by the government should be readily available to the public and to the media, and not kept in secret," she said.

With regard to the first objective, Masjaliza said, "it is impossible to have any meaningful forum when laws such as the PPPA are still availed to the government to threaten the press into submission. Already, the government regularly makes known its views to the mainstream media through phone calls, show-cause letters and the summoning of editors to the Home Ministry for 'chats'.

"That the Information, Communications and Culture Minister and the Home Minister are being proposed as co-chairs of the council alongside their secretary-generals as deputy co-chairs shows the government's intention to retain its position of power."

CIJ also notes that the federal government appears to view media as its communications consultant – or, at worst, propaganda arm – judging from the stated functions of the proposed council:
• to improve the management and sharing of information on policies, programmes, and community and government activities;
• to discuss current issues and draw up communication plans to address them in an integrated and organised manner;
• to improve efforts on educating and strengthening the people's minds and spirit for the purpose of instilling a sense of patriotism and achieving national development;
• to share information and feedback on how to improve the delivery system of the civil service sector; and
• to detect, address and eliminate negative elements in protecting the federal and state constitutions as well as the country's integrity and sovereignty.

Although there is mention of upholding ethical journalism as one of its roles, it is tied with "the promotion of social responsibility and nationalism among media practitioners".

Media councils have been debated since the 1970s and a few models proposed since then place a significant amount of power in the ruling government. Journalists, editors and media freedom interest groups such as CIJ have consistently sought the review of existing laws as a precursor to any council; however, these calls have gone unheeded.

CIJ calls upon all parties to reject this government-led initiative. The public deserves a media that is independent and puts the public interest first rather than answer to the political masters of the day.

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