Freedom of the Press
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Despite hope for enhanced press freedom following the March 2008 general elections and notable efforts for a more open system by some of the newly elected officials, Malaysia’s media climate deteriorated in 2008 as a result of a crackdown led by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who was struggling to shore up support within his own party. In response to the clear role of online media in propelling opposition candidates to victory in the March elections, the authorities employed restrictions and censorship tactics that were traditionally used against the mainstream media to curb increasingly active bloggers and online journalists.
Malaysia’s 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 to shut down or otherwise circumscribe the distribution of media outlets that published material deemed antigovernment, against the national interest, or “sensitive.” The PPPA was invoked in mid-April by Home Affairs Minister Syed Hamid, who refused to renew the permit of the Tamil-language newspaper Makkal Osai after it devoted ample coverage to opposition parties ahead of the March general elections. The minister reversed his decision a few days later, announcing that the ministry would consider abolishing the PPPA, but no such action was subsequently taken.
The 1988 Broadcasting Act allows the information minister to decide who can own a broadcast station and what type of television service is 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), the Sedition Act, and harsh criminal defamation laws 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 its restrictive defamation laws against online media for the first time in 2007 in response to bloggers’ and websites’ increasing coverage of corruption cases and other controversial matters. This crackdown reached new heights following the March 2008 general elections. In June, justifying its actions with “security concerns,” the government issued new restrictions on media coverage of the parliament that permit only five representatives from each medium to cover parliamentary developments at any given time. Following the March elections, 15 newly elected officials joined a group of nongovernmental organizations in pushing for the enactment of a freedom of information law and a review of current media laws. However, no concrete progress was made by year’s end.
Although violence against media workers in Malaysia is relatively uncommon, the Centre for Independent Journalism documented several instances of physical assault against journalists in 2008. In February, two newspaper reporters, Mohammed Rashidi Karim of Harian Metro and Adha Ghazali of Berita Harian, were attacked while covering election campaigning in Kangar. In addition, a number of newspaper photographers suffered beatings during the year while covering political events.
Investigative reporting is generally inhibited by the threat of expensive defamation suits, dismissals, media closures, and unannounced interrogation by the Ministry of Internal Security for any “mishandling” of information. Moreover, a history of political interference in coverage of certain issues has fostered a culture of self-censorship among 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 and July 2007 in connection with claims of heightened racial and religious tensions were not as prominent in 2008, as Prime Minister Abdullah and the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition grew more concerned with holding on to power following the large electoral gains by the opposition. Fears about the renewal of their licenses caused two papers that were previously critical of the administration to practice heightened self-censorship in the run-up to the elections. A media monitoring project conducted by the Centre for Independent Journalism found that 65 percent of election coverage in 2008 held a bias in favor of the incumbents, whereas only 12 percent favored opposition candidates.
Online journalists have increasingly defied this tradition, however, playing a more prominent role in exposing official corruption, covering antigovernment protests, and criticizing the administration for its repressive approach to the media. In addition to using defamation suits and other legalistic means to silence criticism, the BN has occasionally issued coverage directives to online media since 2007. Sedition charges and the Internal Security Act (ISA) were used in 2008 to harass and intimidate the online community. Raja Petra Kamarudin—a political blogger known for his widely read Malaysia Today website, bore the brunt of this repression, as his detailed criticism of the BN was believed to have contributed to opposition electoral gains. In May, a host of sedition charges were issued against Raja Petra and others. In late July, he was charged with defamation for publishing a statement he made to the High Court that implicated Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Najib Abdul Razak in the murder of a Mongolian woman in 2006. He was ordered to reveal sources in August and to remove articles from his blog. The government’s campaign to silence online critics climaxed in September, when three high-profile arrests were made under the ISA. Raja Petra, another journalist, and a member of the opposition were detained, even as the opposition prepared a bid to gain control of the parliament. All three had been released by mid-November, however. In blatant violation of Malaysia’s law prohibiting censorship of online media, access to Malaysia Today was blocked in September as well. The government continued to pledge support for online media while stressing “accountability for what one writes.”
Foreign publications are subject to censorship, and the distribution of issues containing critical articles is frequently delayed. The government directly censors books and films for profanity, nudity, and violence as well as certain political and religious material. There were no major reports of banned books and films in 2008. Television stations censor programming according to government guidelines, and in 2007, when religious issues were more of a priority for the government, a talk show was banned for contradicting the Islamic values advocated by the prime minister. 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 2006 business deal between media tycoon Tiong Hiew King and the Malaysian Chinese Association, a key BN party, solidified the monopolization of the Chinese-language press, with the top four Chinese dailies now concentrated in the hands of a political-business alliance. 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 nearly 63 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 sources. Moreover, online media proved a crucial organizing and publicity tool for the opposition-led and minority rights demonstrations of November 2007, which were critical to the opposition’s electoral victory in 2008.