Freedom of the Press
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While Malaysian journalists, particularly online, showed greater aggressiveness in covering official corruption and antigovernment protests, press freedom continued to suffer in 2007 owing to significant legal restrictions, intimidation, and an escalating crackdown on the more open online media. Meanwhile, the Barisan National (BN) ruling coalition invoked traditionally tight restrictions on the mainstream media to prevent coverage of heightened opposition activity toward year’s end.
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 media outlets for material deemed pro-opposition, against the national interest, or “sensitive.” The PPPA was invoked in March 2007 to threaten the opposition paper Harakah for “violating its permit conditions” after it ran a front-page story criticizing the prime minister, covering controversial toll hikes, and linking the deputy prime minister to a murder case. In September, the Tamil daily Makkal Osai was suspended under the same legislation for publishing a picture that associated Jesus with cigarettes.
The 1988 Broadcasting Act allows the information minister to decide who can own a broadcast station and the type of television service suitable for the Malaysian public. The country has no access to information legislation, and officials are reluctant to share controversial data. The Official Secrets Act (OSA), Sedition Act, and harsh criminal defamation legislation are also used to impose restrictions on the press and other critics, and all transgressions are punishable by several years in prison. The government used this restrictive legislation against online media for the first time in 2007 in response to bloggers’ and websites’ increasing coverage of corruption cases and other controversial matters. In January 2007, defamation charges were first brought against bloggers accused of plagiarism by the publisher and editor of the New Straits Times, which enjoys close ties to the ruling United Malays National Organization party. In April, a BN official brought defamation charges against Malaysiakini, a critical website.
Although violence against media workers in Malaysia is relatively uncommon, several instances of physical assault or death threats against journalists were reported in 2007. In the most severe case, in November, photojournalist R. Raman fell into a coma after being beaten by unidentified men, apparently in connection with articles he wrote for a Tamil-language daily on the possible closure and poor state of schools in the community; according to Reporters Sans Frontieres, he awoke two weeks later but remains paralyzed.
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 inhibits investigative reporting. Moreover, a history of political interference in media coverage of issues considered by the government to be against the national interest or “sensitive” has fostered a culture of self-censorship on the part of traditional media. While there has been somewhat greater criticism of official policy in the mainstream print media in recent years, both the print and broadcast media’s news coverage and editorials generally support the government line. Reporting bans issued in July 2006 in connection with heightened tensions related to matters of race and religion were repeated in July 2007 when the media were prohibited from reporting all negative reactions to the deputy prime minister’s assertion that Malaysia had always been an Islamic state. In November, the authorities ordered the mainstream media to refrain from reporting on antigovernment rallies or relaying the organizers’ statements; according to Malaysia’s Center for Investigative Journalism, news coverage of the rallies neglected the antigovernment stance while reports on clashes between participants and the police were biased in favor of the police.
Online journalists have increasingly defied this tradition, however, and in 2007 played a particularly central role in exposing government corruption and covering antigovernment protests toward year’s end. In addition to using defamation suits and other legalistic means to silence criticism, the government responded by issuing coverage directives to online media for the first time. A July statement by the government explicitly warned that bloggers who wrote about “sensitive issues” would be charged under the Internal Security Act, OSA, and Sedition Act. Also in July, Nathaniel Tan, a prominent blogger and aide to the head of the opposition People’s Justice Party, was arrested under the OSA. Tan was charged in connection with his commentary related to corruption in the country’s internal security system and was released after his four-day remand expired. Newspapers were specifically warned against covering “rumors” being reported online. In April, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi rejected a proposal that would have required bloggers to register with the government. In June, however, he convened a task force of BN officials to find legislation that would secure control over online content without contradicting the Bill of Guarantees that was passed under the Multimedia Super Corridor in the 1990s and prohibits internet censorship.
Foreign publications are subject to censorship, and the distribution of issues containing critical articles is frequently delayed. In January, the Internal Security Ministry removed an article on Asian Muslims from local copies of the Economist magazine for allegedly “contravening Islamic teaching.” The government directly censors books and films for profanity, nudity, and violence as well as certain political and religious material. The Malaysian Film Censorship Unit banned a film about former Malay Muslim members of the Communist Party of Malaysia in February 2007 for portraying the Communist struggle as noble. Television stations censor programming according to government guidelines; a talk show was banned for contradicting the values of “Islam Hadari” advocated by the prime minister in February. The government also maintained a ban on the Chinese-language newspaper Epoch Times.
Print journalism is dominated by 11 national daily newspapers—3 in English, 4 in Malay, and 4 in Chinese—all of which are owned or controlled by the ruling coalition or individuals closely connected with the government. A business deal in October 2006 between the Malaysian Chinese Association and media tycoon Tiong Hiew King solidified the monopolization of the Chinese press, with all top four Chinese dailies now concentrated in the hands of a firm political-business alliance. Regional press freedom watchdog groups expressed concern in February 2007 regarding a further consolidation of the Chinese media across countries following a proposed tripartite merger among three media groups, two of them Malaysian and one based in Hong Kong, all owned by Tiong. Such a merger would create the largest Chinese publication group outside China and Taiwan. The state-owned Radio Television Malaysia operates two television and a large number of radio stations, though private radio stations broadcasting in Malay, Tamil, Chinese, and English are also in operation.
With 60 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. Moreover, online media proved a crucial organizing tool and means of publicizing the opposition-led and minority rights demonstrations in November. There were no reported restrictions on internet access; however, according to the U.S. State Department, the government monitored e-mails sent to blogs, and some online authors were known to self-censor.