Freedom of the Press
Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Malaysian media—traditionally constrained by significant legal restrictions and intimidation—were further restricted in 2006 as a by-product of government attempts to suppress public discussion of divisive and potentially explosive issues. The constitution provides each citizen with “the right to freedom of speech and expression” but allows for limitations on this right. The 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) requires all publishers and printing firms to obtain an annual operations permit and gives the prime minister the authority to revoke licenses at any time without judicial review. The PPPA has been used by authorities to shut down or otherwise circumscribe the distribution of pro-opposition media outlets and was invoked in early 2006 to indefinitely suspend the Sarawak Tribune and temporarily suspend the Guang Ming Daily for reproducing the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi invoked the act again in mid-February to prohibit the publication, distribution, or possession of any materials relating to the Danish caricatures. The government’s handling of the cartoon issue and use of the PPPA fostered fear of a selective crackdown on the press and resulted in media self-censorship.
Among other legal restrictions is the 1988 Broadcasting Act, which allows the information minister to decide who can own a broadcast station and the type of television service suitable for the Malaysian public. The Official Secrets Act, Sedition Act, and harsh criminal defamation legislation are also used to impose restrictions on the press and other critics. The country has no access to information legislation, and officials are reluctant to share controversial data. In October, government leaders refused to publicize the data and analysis behind the official Bumiputera corporate equity calculations used to uphold the country’s affirmative action quotas after forcing the withdrawal of a study that challenged them.
The threat of expensive defamation suits, sackings, media closures, media bans, and unannounced interrogation by the Ministry of Internal Security for any “mishandling” of information generally inhibit investigative reporting. Moreover, self-censorship has been entrenched by a history of political interference in media coverage of issues considered by the government to be against the national interest or “sensitive.” This trend culminated in mid-July 2006, when heightened tensions related to the perceived “Islamization” of Malaysia led the prime minister to ban all reporting on the issues of race and religion. A few days later, in violation of the 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act, which guarantees that the internet will not be censored, the prime minister threatened to detain those who “spread untruths and slander” on the internet and in text messages. The government directly censors books and films for profanity, nudity, and violence as well as certain political and religious material. The Ministry of Internal Security banned 18 books from mid-June to early July under the PPPA on the grounds they might “disrupt peace and harmony.” Television stations censor programming according to government guidelines. A weekend newspaper, the Weekend Mail, and its editor were suspended for publishing a spread in November on what Malaysians think about sex.
Also in 2006, while they have traditionally owned all eight major daily newspapers, a business deal between the Malaysian Chinese Association and media tycoon Tiong Hiew King in October solidified the monopolization of the Chinese press, with all top four Chinese dailies now concentrated in the hands of a firm political-business alliance. Despite a call for media law reform launched by 47 civil society organizations in response to the October merger, newspaper reports in late November indicated plans for a subsequent merger in the Malay print industry that would grant UMNO, the ruling party, direct ownership of most local media through a new partnership with the Media Prima company. Both the print and broadcast media’s news coverage and editorials already generally support the government line. There has been somewhat greater criticism of official policy in the mainstream print press in recent years, however. Foreign publications are subject to censorship, and the distribution of issues containing critical articles is frequently delayed.
With nearly 48 percent of the population accessing the internet, online media have helped minimize the government’s monopoly of information in the past few years and bolstered the average Malaysian’s access to alternative information sources. However, bloggers continue to be subject to repeated instances of harassment at the hands of authorities. The year’s debate over Islam and minority rights prompted some government ministers to call for extending the PPPA to online media in 2006 and, in December, Science and Technology Minister Kong Cho Ha announced that the government planned to impose restrictions on the internet to prevent bloggers from disrupting social harmony. Prime Minister Abdullah proposed the launch of an internet exchange for Malaysia toward the end of the year that would make such controls easier to impose.