Malaysia PM urges media to criticize government

(Associated Press) – Malaysia's new prime minister urged the local media on Monday to criticize the government "without fear," but stopped short of saying if he would remove the annual licensing system that shackles publications.

Prime Minister Najib Razak, who took office on Friday, said he wants to build a free press that is transparent, accountable and caters to the needs of all Malaysians regardless of their race.

Najib's speech appeared to be an attempt to allay concerns that he would unleash a crackdown on the media. The fear was raised after the government banned two opposition newspapers just days before he took power. However, Najib overturned the ban hours after taking the oath of office.

To "build a democracy (that is) responsive to the needs of the people," Malaysia needs a media that will "report what they see, without fear of consequence," Najib said in a speech to the editors of local newspapers, radio stations and television stations.

The media "should hold governments and public officials accountable for the results they achieve or do not achieve," he said in the speech organized by the Malaysian Press Institute.

But Najib's bold call for media outlets, which are mostly pro-government, to change is unlikely to achieve results as long as newspapers and other publications are forced to obtain an operating license each year.

The possibility that the license will be revoked keeps media outlets, especially those run by the opposition parties, in check. In the past, several newspapers have been shut down through this system.

In any case, most newspapers and all television stations are either owned by different parties in the ruling coalition or are indirectly owned by the government, which ensures they rarely go against those in power.

The only critical commentary available is in the online media and blogs, which tend to be heavily biased against the government. Some bloggers have been accused of reporting rumors and unsubstantiated allegations and of libeling government leaders.

Though bloggers don't need to obtain government permission to publish, they have been silenced in other ways.

At least two bloggers, including popular commentator Raja Petra Kamarudin, have been jailed briefly under a law that allows indefinite detention without trial. Raja Petra has also been found guilty of libeling government politicians and ordered to pay huge sums of money in damages. The latest verdict against him was on Friday.

Najib noted that he himself has been a victim of personal attacks in the media. He was referring to allegations that he was involved in a shady government contract to buy submarines from France. He has also been accused of links in the murder of a Mongolian woman, who was the estranged lover of Najib's friend.

Najib has vehemently denied the allegations.

"I will always stand up and be accountable for the decisions I make as your prime minister," he said.