Small gains in freedom, strong threats too

By Sheila Koshy, The Star

Last year was a milestone marked with small gains, amidst strong threats, for freedom of expression in Malaysia.

“The public became increasingly vocal on issues and expressed its views on the Internet, by writing letters to newspaper editors and taking part in protests,” said the Centre of Independent Journalism’s Publication & Communications officer Yip Wai Fong.

She said this at the release of CIJ’s annual review of the state of freedom of expression in Malaysia at its office here Thursday.

“The 2008 review showed the Government has neither relaxed its legal restrictions on freedom of expression nor committed itself to any such plan; however, there was some change in the implementation of the laws.”

On post-election media freedom, Yip said there was a slight improvement — there was greater coverage of opposition parties, greater diversity of views and televised proceedings of the Parliament’s Question Time.

As for threats, she said the Government was still pushing for a media council, even though journalists objected to another form of control, and had banned and issued show-cause letters to several newspapers.

Based on an analysis of the number columns devoted to the Pakatan Rakyat opposition alliance and their slant in The Star, The New Straits Times (NST)and theSun from April to December, she said there was more balanced discussion in the those less connected to Umno.

In its 26-page report, CIJ notes that unlike a news report that risks the wrath of the Home Ministry, a newspaper could distance itself from a column or axe it.

It said The Star had the most number of columns by staff and external writers on Pakatan Rakyat as well as a greater diversity (58% neutral, 24% positive, 18% critical) of views, sometimes on the same day.

Those for NST and theSun instead were 52% neutral to 48% critical and 30% neutral to 70% positive, respectively.

Asked whether the public realise they have a responsibility to ensure the media is free to work and has access to information if they wanted to be better informed, CIJ executive director Gayathry Venkiteswaran said: “The street protests show the public is unhappy with the information they are getting.

“And in our meetings with civil society groups, more and more are realising that they too have a responsibility for effecting change.”

She later gave out badges for reporters and photographers to wear when on duty. The yellow badge, which warns “Hands Off!! Journos at work,” has a silhouette of a reporter-cum-cameraman in a red triangle signifying a safe working environment.