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Introduction and Context of Press Freedom
According to the World Press Freedom Index 2014, our country, Malaysia ranks 147 among 180 countries. The World Press Freedom Index measures the degree of freedom of the journalists and news publication in each country, how much efforts that the public respect to the freedom and ensure it, and also the negative connection between information and conflicts. There are some general criteria that the World Press Freedom Index used to score the country which are pluralism, media independence, environment and self-censorship, legislative framework, transparency and infrastructure (Reporters without Borders, 2014). Since our country ranks in 147, it means that Malaysia’s press freedom is totally in a difficult situation. The violations and discrimination of the journalists and also the daily news which publish about violence and negative issues will affect the World Press Freedom ranking.
The news media in Malaysia are mostly monopolized by laws and regulation. It covers a huge area in the media industry and restrict them in many ways. Government may reinforce the industry by adopting and implementing a self-regulation code and even watch or guide them to impose those regulations (Alsogoff & Hamzah 2007). This results in the restriction of press freedom. Press freedom protects the privilege to obtain and publish materials without the government censorship or the law enforcement. It applies to all types of printed and broadcast material such as books, newspapers, journals, magazines, brochures, films and radio and even the television programs.
The press are not given too much power or credibility to perform on certain things. According to Alsagoff, Abdullah & Hassan (2011), they stated that there are three ways to restrict the press freedom in Malaysia which are through restrictive laws, ownership from political parties and connected business individuals and also the self-censorship which are exercised by the editors and journalists. Because of the laws and regulations towards the press freedom, the press and the public cannot express their feelings and thoughts freely. This has already restricted them to think creatively and critically.
Importance of Press Freedom
As we know, although the press freedom has been partially restricted in Malaysia, either the online news or news publication, the journalists still consider the freedom of press important for some reasons and play their role as the responsibility to transmit the information to the public, as follows:
- Since the information and the news has been published without being biased or prejudiced, the public are able to make decision or think critically about the related issue;
- Press functions not only as the indicator of an issue but also the as the media’s predictor of the change in the nations over the world;
- Press can be known as a part of the media to help to maintain the balance and the democracy of the country. Media acts as the “watchdog of the people” and also the “Fourth Estate” other than the three traditional estate of the Parliament.
- Nowadays, there are strong inseparable relationship between the status of democracy and the role of the press and media. It means that one cannot function without another where the rapid growth of the technology and the rise of the social media is challenging the restrictions from the government to the press media.
Technology, Social Media and Reformasi
The media crisis issues which were happened in Malaysia has contributed to the idea of press freedom. Most of the press freedom had their printing licenses revoked because of the restriction of the government and the laws.
After facing much obstacles from publishing materials such as May 1969 Riots, Operation Lalang and the Reformasi issue, the attention shifted to the Internet. In the early September 1998, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad fired his deputy Anwar Ibrahim. Many Malaysians were craving to search for the truth of why Anwar had been fired as the government concealed the truth from the mainstream media. Thus, the alternative media such as online website were sprang up to find out the truth and to maintain the principles as journalists which are “transparency” and “accountability”. For example, Malaysia’s most popular email discussion, The Sangkancil mailing list, the independent web-based daily newspaper, Malaysiakini,com, website for a community to cultivate a public sphere, Freemedia, and the web radio which under the Centre of Investigative Journalism’s operation, RadiqRadio.com (Anil, 2002). It also claims that Anwar Ibrahim is the one who brought out the trend of using alternative media to find out the truth.
In this new era, due to the development of the technology, newspaper are slowly not recognized by the people as they are able to search the information that they want through the alternative media. The Internet appeared to transform the ways that the news media work used to be in technological-developing countries as well as how the society groups try to change the society (Robie, n.d.). Thus, it makes a large extent to the alternative or independent media in the world. It provides alternative viewpoint, opinion and information to the public (Atton, 2002).
Although blogs and social networking website were not essentially used to share information, they are widely used to spread the news better than the mainstream media which automatically transform into the most potential information source (Sajad, n.d.). However, there are still some people who use the alternative and the social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and other sources to spread misinformation and rumors.
Alternative media differs with the mainstream media from some dimensions which are their contents, aesthetic, production method, distribution method, and the relations between audiences. Every alternative media created with certain aims and purpose. For example, Malaysiakini was established for the journalists who dissatisfied with the biased news content and their objective is to push the boundaries and test the press freedom (Wang, 2001). It shows that although the mainstream media has been restricted by the government, there are still some alternative media with different purposes for public to voice out their opinion. Therefore, the technology advancement and the rising of social media give a perspective that there is press freedom in the society.
The May 1969 Riots – The Idea of Press Freedom
In the 1969 general election, the ruling Alliance Party which includes UMNO, MCA and MIC almost failed to gain a two-thirds majority seats in the Dewan Rakyat for the first time (Zaharom & Wang, n.d.). On the other hand, the opposition parties managed to get the majority seats and the supports from public. The opposition parties involving DAP, Gerakan, PAS and formed a joint double-prong commission for two purposes which to prevent vote splitting and to campaign for each other by asking their supporters to vote for anyone other than the Alliance Party (Lim, 2012). Therefore, it created a multi-ethnic society and received most of the votes and grant welcome from Malays.
However, the government seemed to not have an agreement with the situation. According to them, it was caused by the “inflammatory speeches made by the political parties during the election campaign and made the oppositions parties staged the victory processions” (Lee, 1995). This is why the government felt that their position and status had been threatened. To solve this situation, the King, advised by the government, declared an emergency state in Malaysia. At the same time, all press publication were requested to shut down for two days starting from 16 May 1969 to inhibit the spread of propaganda (Zaharom & Wang, n.d.). By the way, there are still some major newspapers were allowed to publish items but the news contents had to be censored by the government first. The press has completely controlled by the government and been restricted for two days although some of press were owned by private sector.
Because of that, the journalists decided to revoke and fight for the press freedom. They noticed that the press freedom is important for the public to understand what is happening in our country. Public has the rights to know the truth behind the government. This is how does the press freedom idea come from.
Control towards Press Freedom
Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA)
The first law and regulation which controls the freedom of the press is the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA). This legislative impinges on the media effectiveness in playing its role as disseminator of information and watchdog over the government of the day (Wang, 2001). Cardinally, British colonial government introduced the Printing Presses and Publications Act as the Printing Ordinance 1948 at the beginning of the emergency state, in order to resist Communist activities which seems as a threat to the establishment. This act again revised in 1971 because of the 13 May 1969 to provide powers and to revoke the publication’s license who aggravated the national sensitivities and the development.
Section 3 requires all publication to apply for an annual publishing licence. It makes the printers and the publishers cannot retain their licenses by eliminating the renewal process. If not, they could have to face the prison term for 3 years jail sentence. It also added some curbs in the act. For example, Section 8(A) (2) states that the published material to be malicious if the writer cannot prove that he/she had taken reasonable measures to verify the truth of the news. Because of this amended act, the government always use this act to straighten the media law and control the publication either directly or indirectly.
According to Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani (2005), the reasons that the government wants to restrict the press freedom and introduces the PPPA in Malaysia are to ensure the orders and to limit the ability of foreign presses to influence people’s attitudes and minds towards the government and country as a whole.
In 1987, two national dailies, The Star and Sin Chew Jit Poh and a Malay bi-weekly, Watan had their licenses revoked because the press were taking sides in their coverage of the Chinese education and also supported the opposition parties by continuously provide transparent news coverage. In 1988, they resumed the publication again after some changes in editorial staff and a climate of self-censorship among the journalists which continued through the 1990s.
Official Security Act (OSA)
Moreover, the Official Secrets Act (OSA) is also yet another piece of legislation that has restricted the right freedom of the expression. It replaced the Malay States Official Secret Ordinance 1950 and was based on the British OSA 1911 and 1920. It can be known a statute inMalaysiaprohibiting the dissemination of information classified as an official secret. This act is related to the communication of sensitive information to non-authorized persons or foreign agents. Raja Aziz Addruse (1990), former chairman of the Malayan Bar Council, describes the Act as the antithesis of the freedom of speech and of citizen’s right to comment on and discuss the government misconduct and incompetence.
To exemplify, Section 2 in OSA defines official secret as any official letter, information, or material which is classified by the Minister and the Chief Minister of state or an appointed public officer as “Top Secret”, “Secret”, “Confidential”, and “Restricted”. Subsequent amendments to this Act have had the effect of making almost all official documents to be classified as official secret (Mustafa, 2002). The public does not have the right to speak out the voice as they are afraid they may be sued or even sentenced to jail. The journalists are also having the same situation too. They are not allowed to report or do any further investigation since the document has been labelled as secret by the Executive.
Thus, many government officers use this as an excuse to cover things that cannot be exposed to the public such as bribery, relationship and power misusing and even the promiscuity. After that, they threatened the press to whitewash the truth so that the people will think that the government is really practicing “transparency” and “accountability”. However, till then, this issue cannot be denied as it has been shown clearly through the daily newspaper and the related officers have gotten the punishment that they deserved.
On 13 July 2007, Tan, a webmaster who works for the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat, was arrested under Section 8 of OSA. He was suspected on possessing “official secrets” on his blog by connecting a link (http://jelas.info) which accused Deputy Internal Security Minister Johari Baharum suspecting in a bribery allegations in exchange for the release of people detained under Malaysia Emergency Ordinance. It is a law that deals with the internal security which allows for detention without trial. Because of this, Johari had been called for an official investigation while Tan may face one to seven years’ imprisonment if he found guilty of violating the OSA.
Internal Security Act (ISA) Furthermore, another law and regulation which restrict the press freedom is the Internal Security Act (ISA). ISA can be known as a preventive detention law force in Malaysia which provides for without-trial detention and arbitrary arrest for a period (Mustafa, 2002). This act is originally enacted in the early 1960s during a national state of emergency which play its role as a temporary measure to fight for a communist rebellion. It is based on barely suspicion that one “may be” commit an act which may bring dangerous and threat to the national security. By the way, this act has be shown clearly that how did it function during Operation Lalang.
The issue development of Operation Lalang also brought the second largest Internal Security Act (ISA) alight in Malaysian History since the 13 May riots. Other than the three mainstream newspapers’ licenses were revoked, a number of 106 people were also detained under ISA declaring for participating in activities “prejudicial to the security of Malaysia”. The detainees include the leader of the Opposition, Lim Kit Siang, ALIRAN president Dr Chandra Muzaffar, DAP Deputy ChairmanKarpal Singh and so forth as well as university lecturers, environmentalists, businessman and some members of UMNO (Operasi Lalang, n.d.). It brought the major breakdown in the Malaysia political history during that time.
There is some other examples of ISA cases which happened in Malaysia. On 2010, thirteen journalists, including two Malaysians, were arrested under ISA because of participating in hunger strikes in May and June due to lack of news over their release. Raja Petra Kamaruddin, a blogger of the Malaysia Today website who was well known for publishing a series of commentary articles on Malaysian politics on the website, was alleged by the Minister of Home Affairs, Dato’ Seri Syed Hamid Albar to be “a threat to national security”. On 11 April 2001, he was suspected for allegedly plotting to subvert the former Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohammad and was arrested under ISA. Then he was released after 52 days and again arrested for second time due to further investigation.
In 1948, the British colonial government enacted Sedition Act to fight with the Communists. The amendments were made through an Emergency Ordinance 1971 after the riots of 1969. The aim is to illegalize any questioning on Part III (citizenship), Article 152 (national language), Article 153 (Malays’ privilege and the rights of other races) and Article 181 (Rulers’ sovereignty of the Federal Constitution) (Freedom of Expression, 2010).
This act empowers the ministers or police to detain everyone who has been found guilty for spreading seditious meanings or information which harm individuals, interest groups, societies and countries. Therefore, it limits the press freedom from publishing anything which seems like harming or threating the government officers. In history, the Sedition Act has been appealed against those critical of the government and the parliament members. Under this Act, if they found guilty, the parliament members can have their suspended parliamentary immunity. Over the years, many of them have been charged and found guilty under the Act. In 2009, the law has been played its role to arrest those who opposed to the Barisan National takeover of the Perak state government (Des Iskandar, 2014).
To exemplify, University of Malaya law lecturer and columnist, Prof Dr. Azmi Sharom was charged under Sedition Act for his comments on the 2009 Perak constitutional crisis in an online news portal Malay Mail. He was arrested under Section 4(1) (b) which states officers who utters any seditious word will be fined for not exceeding RM5, 000 or imprisonment for not exceeding five years. Other than that, Malaysiakini online news portal journalist, Susan Loone also arrested under same act for publishing her phone interview with Penang executive councilor, Phee Boon Poh on the mass arrests of the state’s Voluntary Patrol Unit (PPS) on Merdeka Day since Phee is the EXCO who in charge of PPS.
For the press, after the general election in 1999, PAS’s twice weekly party newspaper, Harakah editor Zulkifli Sulong and the printer Chea Lin Thye, owner of printing firm Syarikat Prema was arrested under Sediction Act for purposely publishing seditious material. Anwar’s lawyer, Karpal Singhwar also detained under the act because of allegedly seditious words in court.
Although our Malaysia is moving on to the developed-technology era with the rise of social media, most of the press still controlled and owned by the political parties or private sectors from different channels, either directly or indirectly. With the help of the social media, journalists still do not have the freedom to express what they really inform to tell the public. Therefore, the public seems like the frogs under the well who do not know what has happened to our government. Are they still practicing “transparency” and “accountability”? Do the government officers still doing something that we public do not know? Who can give us the answer? It is the journalists and the reporters! If the government still restrict the press freedom, what is the value of publishing newspaper daily?
There are some suggestions to enhance the press freedom in our country. Cardinally, it is necessary to reduce the concentration of media ownership towards the publication and social media (Zaharom & Wang, n.d.). Less media ownership’s attention help the news media to publish materials without concerning on the importance and the image of the private sector or political party but still need to obey the law enforcement as the responsibility of journalists. Furthermore,
It is encouraged to invite new media actors enter the industry. It is crucial for new actors to provide alternative channels to express their opinions in an economically and socially-diverse society (Anil, 2002). Therefore, it able the public to think and comment on related issue with relevant examples and information critically.
In a nutshell, promoting press freedom through the social media and mainstream media in our country is the most important and critical issue that the journalists should consider at the moment. Thus, we can develop an equal information flow and opinion between the government administration and the public.
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