The Malaysian government’s love-hate relationship with the media
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The Malaysian government’s love-hate relationship with the media

IT’S been a rocky year so far for the often-contentious relationship between Malaysia’s leaders and the media.

In the first quarter of 2016, we’ve seen a soap opera of events unfold, from the blocking of news portals and blogging platforms to the arrest of foreign journalists.

Yes, some may argue that we’re not as bad as other countries and pull out the “China/North Korea/any other authoritarian country” card, but let’s not bring ourselves down to that level.

As it stands, Malaysia is currently ranked at #147 out of 180 countries in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index, an annual report released by Reporters Without Borders which highlights worldwide standings in freedom of information. The country has seen an overall decline in press freedom over the years – it is at its lowest position since 2002, with its highest ranking in 2006, at #92.

According to Freedom House’s annual Freedom of the Press report, in 2015, Malaysia scored as “Not Free”, with a press freedom score of 65 out of 100 (the higher the number, the less freedom for the press).

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of State released its yearly Human Rights report, and its conclusions on the current state of Malaysia’s press and media freedoms, while not shocking, should still be a cause for concern.

Many journalists can still recall the blows press freedom suffered during former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s term, what with Operation Lalang and the arbitrary use of laws such as the Internal Security Act and Official Secrets Act.

This is why it’s all the more important that we not allow press and media freedoms to backslide to past standards.

According to the report: “The [Malaysian] government exerted control over news content, both in print and broadcast media; punished publishers of ‘malicious news’; and banned, restricted, or limited circulation of publications believed a threat to public order, morality, or national security.”

It cited several examples from last year:

  • In June, the government deported an Al-Jazeera journalist looking into the 2006 murder of 28-year-old Mongolian national Altantuya Shaariibuu, who had alleged links to Prime Minister Najib Razak.
  • In July, the government suspended financial newspaper The Edge for three months due to its reporting on the 1MDB financial scandal linked to Najib.
  • In the same month, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), the government’s internet regulator, ordered internet service providers to block access to Sarawak Report, that also reported on the same scandal.
  • In August, police obtained an arrest warrant for the editor of Sarawak Report, Clare Rewcastle-Brown, for alleged involvement in an “activity detrimental to parliamentary democracy.”
  • In November, police and MCMC officers raided the offices of two major online news publications – The Star Online and Malaysiakini – following reporting on a controversial transfer of an anti-corruption officer.

The report asserts that such policies, along with defamation and libel laws, inhibited independent investigative journalism and resulted in extensive self-censorship, probably much to the government’s satisfaction.

It’s been oft-repeated by government officials that the media should “report responsibly” or be ready to face sanctions, yet when those same government officials frequently make questionable statements that cause Malaysians nationwide to collectively roll their eyes, it’s difficult to take them seriously.

While Malaysia’s leaders are wary of the power of media when it is in the hands of others, they are also surprisingly media-savvy – especially on social media. Najib long ago cottoned on to the power that cats hold over the online masses and the Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar is an active Twitter user.

Remember the kittens I wrote about last June? Now they have given birth to a litter!

Posted by Najib Razak on Thursday, May 26, 2011

Even Communications and Multimedia Ministry Minister Salleh Said Keruak, who has previously said that “freedom of speech and the expression of one’s opinions was a privilege rather than an absolute right”, runs a blog.

But again – the media is only dangerous when it disagrees with their status quo.

It’s common knowledge here that mainstream media outlets enjoy “privileges” for being pro-government, with media practitioners often benefiting from pandering to the government’s agenda, while those critical of it have been barred from covering government press conferences.

This year alone, two Malaysian online news portals known to criticize the government, including The Malaysian Insider, ceased operations and police announced that they intended to increase scrutiny of social media posts.

The government has also thus far proposed to strengthen the punishment for those found guilty of leaking “official secrets” and may soon require local news portals and political blogs to register with the government.

U.S. founding father and former president Thomas Jefferson once wrote:

“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

And with another eight and a half months of 2016 to go, anything can happen.

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