Loosen up, not tighten up

By Wong Chun Wai, The Star

The world has changed, so the government needs to change the way it regulates the media.

DON’T even think about it! That’s probably the best response to any suggestion to amend the Printing Presses and Publi­cations Act (PPPA) to include online content.

The reaction has been fast and furious, and rightly too, following a statement by the Home Ministry that the government planned to expand the scope of the Act to include “publications” posted online, including Facebook and YouTube, besides plugging loopholes resulting from the changing media landscape.

Home Ministry secretary-general Datuk Seri Mahmood Adam was quoted as saying that the ministry was working with the Attorney-General’s Chambers to study the proposed amendments and was hoping to table them in Parliament by March.

It would be naive of anyone at the Home Ministry to assume that there would be no objection to the proposal. The idea is preposterous and regressive in this Digital Age, and this can only happen when Analogue Age officials are unable to adapt to the changing political scenario. The world has moved on, so have Malay­sians, and no one should still be in control mode, attempting to stifle expression no matter how subtly.

After the 2008 general election, one would assume that the federal government would be more willing to adapt and to loosen the PPPA. But it has not happened.

There was a proposal for a one-off printing permit whereby magazines and newspapers would not need to renew their licences annually. It has not happened. But the Pakatan Rakyat government in Selangor has snubbed the Home Ministry by printing the Selangor Times, and the KDN officials seem utterly helpless and unable to deal with the situation.

The Selangor government has cleverly exploited a loophole that allows state governments to print such publications without a printing permit. The Barisan Nasional government probably never thought that the opposition would come to power in Selangor.

Harakah and Rocket are supposed to be restricted to PAS and DAP members respectively, but Malaysians can get these publications in most shops. Again, the KDN is unable to even enforce its own laws.

Unfortunately, those who toe the line imposed by the KDN are the ones who have to grapple with the numerous requirements of the ministry.

The powers of the KDN are currently restricted to the print media while online and electronic are under the purview of the Malay­sian Communications and Multimedia Com­mission (MCMC). Unless it involves security matters, the KDN has no business regulating the Internet. So, any amendment requiring the online media to apply for licences is not likely to get the support of anyone.

It goes against what former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad had promised the world in the 1990s. Even Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has given such assurances.

The proposed amendments run contrary to the Communications and Mulitmedia Act 1998, it’s that simple.

Malaysia is not Myanmar and, surely, we are not going the Egyptian way, where over 80% of users were denied Internet access following the street protests last week.

Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein and Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz, realising the potential in political damage from the statement, moved swiftly to downplay the issue. They said this was only at the discussion stage. A test balloon, perhaps, but it didn’t fly very far for sure.

There are already enough laws governing the media, specifically the print media, including having to get a printing permit annually. There are many other requirements which put the print media in an odd situation.

You can watch the sexy gyrations of female artistes on MTV but the KDN says there should be no show of cleavage or navel in print. TV boleh, print tak boleh.

The showing of armpits is not permissible in print, but on TV it’s fine because TV is under the purview of another ministry.

So, women in bikinis are not allowed to be shown in print but you can watch them in the beauty pageants on Astro.

Of course, showing of navels and armpits of beach volleyball players on TV is allowed too. Print, tak boleh, as “you can sexually arouse your readers”. Such are the contradictory and even biased requirements for print while the online portals are completely free from similar intrusions and restrictions.

But do not expect print journalists to support any amendment to restrict their online counterparts. Any journalist worth his/her salt should protest any move to tighten press freedom. It is sheer arrogance to expect the media to remain passive or non-reactive when they hear of more laws being planned because we are stakeholders. We do not want to be caught unawares. In fact, we should be consulted if there are plans to make regulations that impede our work.

Let’s not forget that most newspaper publishers and editors are now owners of online news portals. The largest online news portals, in fact, belong to the print media.

From the Internal Security Act, Sedition Act, and Official Secrets Act to the many civil actions that can be used against the media, there are already enough laws. Let’s not put up even more. Malaysians want to hear the government announce moves to relax the media laws, whether print or online, not plug the loopholes.

Dissemination of information is no longer just through the newspapers, radio, television or computer these days. The most powerful tool is now the mobile phone.

There is no way the government can keep up with the rapid changes in technology. As such, it cannot be plugging every loophole relating to media law at every Parliament session because it will not be able to catch up.

Use the existing laws to clamp down on those who abuse their Facebook to spread hate and incite racial tensions.

More importantly, there must not be selective prosecution because the perception now is that some publications or portals seem to be able to get away with such reports.

Let there be fair enforcement of laws so that Malaysians will respect the law.

Loosen up, not tighten up. That should be the way the government deals with the media because the world has changed.