Dwindling press freedom under reformasi government?

Press freedom is not just about not arresting journalists or closing down publications but also about being able to write without fear of police knocking on your door.

A. Kathirasen, FMT

Two recent reports on the state of freedom in Malaysia paint a rather negative picture of the government led by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, whose Pakatan Harapan-led coalition won on the promise of reforms and greater freedom.

No matter how hard unity government spokesman Fahmi Fadzil tries to defend his government, Malaysians who are aware of the importance of freedom of expression and press freedom to any democracy are united in their view that it has been a disappointment.

Many, for instance, were disappointed when, on April 24, Fahmi dismissed Amnesty International’s report which said the space for freedom of expression in Malaysia was dwindling and that election promises had not been kept.

Fahmi insisted that the unity government had not detained any journalist or closed down any publication.

Certainly that is true. Under some previous Barisan Nasional (BN) governments, publications were closed down, media organisations raided and harassed, and journalists detained.

I have been in journalism since 1976 and I can vouch for the fact that press freedom in Malaysia left much to be desired, and was even under siege, during long periods of the BN administration.

As a journalist you had to be very careful about what you wrote and there was too much self-censorship on the part of editors, largely because mainstream media were almost all owned – directly or indirectly – by political parties or interest groups, mostly aligned with the ruling government.

I got into trouble a few times and my column in the New Straits Times was stopped – twice – because what I had written did not please the powers that be. Fortunately for me, on both occasions when a different chief editor took over, I was asked to write again.

That’s why I say Fahmi misses the point. Press freedom is not just about not arresting journalists or closing down publications.

It is about the government respecting and protecting the media and opening up space for public discussion in the media. It is about news organisations being able to write and publish news and opinion pieces without fear of reprisal.

How can journalists or publishers operate without fear of reprisal if the government has at its disposal laws that it can use at a moment’s notice to act against a journalist or a media organisation? How can journalists write without fear if their upward mobility in the organisation is impacted by what they write or their editors practice self-censorship?

And Fahmi must understand that the public is only asking the PH-led government to fulfil its election promise to reform institutions and protect press freedom – nothing more, nothing less.

However, Fahmi’s response to the report by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) was more positive. He said the government would study RSF’s proposals and take measures to improve Malaysia’s position in the World Press Freedom Index.

“We may not necessarily accept their proposals outright but will thoroughly review and see what is suitable for Malaysia,” he told the media on May 6.

Let me briefly state some points raised by Amnesty International and RSF.

In a press release in conjunction with the release of Amnesty International’s annual State of the World’s Human Rights report, its executive director for Malaysia Katrina Jorene Maliamauv noted the continued use of restrictive laws to curtail freedom of expression and assembly.

Among other things, Maliamauv said: “What has been deeply disappointing is that the government has failed to fulfil its commitments to reform laws that restrict the right to freedom of expression as it had committed to do in its pre-election manifesto. Completely backtracking on its commitment, the government has instead continued to use these laws to silence critical voices and prevent peaceful protest.”

She added: “A government that says it is ‘reform-minded’ will need to be honest about how laws have been used to stifle expression and political participation, and will have the integrity to fulfil its own commitments to repealing draconian laws such as the Sedition Act, the Communications and Multimedia Act, and the Printing Presses and Publications Act.”

The RSF report too highlighted the restrictions on freedom in releasing its World Press Freedom Index.

Malaysia dropped 34 places to 107th in the World Press Freedom Index 2024 – which compares the level of media freedom in 180 countries and regions – with a score of 52.07. In the 2023 report, Malaysia was placed 73rd with a score of 62.83. In 2022, it occupied the 113th position, with 51.55 points.

According to the RSF report, the government exerts a great deal of political pressure to deter the media from tackling sensitive subjects or from criticising politicians and government officials.

“The authorities are after investigative reporters, and the monarchy is an extremely sensitive subject, as are discussions on race and religion. Any form of commentary or reporting deemed critical of the monarchy can result in prosecution, leading to widespread self-censorship on the matter.

“The constitution guarantees press freedom, but draconian legislation allows the authorities to restrict this freedom by sending journalists to prison: up to 20 years for those accused of violating the 1948 Sedition Act and 14 years for the 1972 Official Secrets Act. The Printing Presses and Publication Act gives the government strict control over the licensing of print media outlets, while the Communications and Multimedia Act is often used to curb what the authorities consider as ‘fake news’.”

It went on to say: “Malaysian journalists are rarely the target of physical attacks, but some are subjected to judicial harassment or smear campaigns. Recent threats to journalism have included prosecutions involving huge expenses, police searches of media outlet headquarters, disregard for the confidentiality of sources, and expulsions of foreign reporters or whistleblowers.”

However, it did note that the Anwar administration was working towards the adoption of a Freedom of Information Act and the creation of a media council.

Following the release of RSF’s report, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) again urged the government to amend or repeal laws that restricted media freedom.

It’s executive director Wathshlah G Naidu said in a statement on May 4 that laws such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, the Sedition Act 1949, Official Secrets Act and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act and Section 203A, 298A, 500, 504 and 505(b) of the Penal Code remained a threat as they promoted self-censorship due to fear of legal repercussions and institutional red tape.

PH’s 2022 election manifesto said: “Harapan is committed to protecting media freedom and advancing free speech to ensure that justice can be collectively championed.”

It promised to review and repeal draconian provisions of Acts that could be abused to restrict free speech such as the Sedition Act 1948, Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, and Printing Press and Publications Act 1984.

In addition, it promised to establish a media council, introduce a Freedom of Information Act, improve the Whistleblower Protection Act, and limit the implementation of the Official Secrets Act to matters that could potentially disrupt the safety of the nation.

On March 12, Fahmi told Parliament in answering a question about press freedom: “I want to say that as a democrat, and as someone who adheres to the principles of reform, neither I nor the administration have any desire to curtail the rights of journalists to report.”

I’m glad that Fahmi and the government have such a stand, but we need to see concrete results. For a start, the government should fully and speedily implement its election promises regarding press freedom and democratic practices.