Malaysian media making a rod for its own back
MAY 30 — Malaysian government plans for a media council to enforce journalists’ compliance with a code of ethics are expected to move ahead with a second round of discussions between editors, journalists, the attorney general and his team.
The government’s moves are described as part of “reforms” in the name of freedom of the press, following the prime minister’s announcement in September to end annual newspaper licenses. In April, amendments to the Printing Press and Publications Act replaced annual licenses with one-off licenses, which are good until cancelled. The move curbed the home minister’s power over the press but opened his decisions to challenge in court.
These “reforms” don’t move Malaysia toward a greater freedom of the press but merely return it to the regime of control that existed before 1988 and Operation Lallang, when the Mahathir government locked up dissidents, critics and closed The Star, Watan and Sin Chew Jit Poh. They were allowed to reopen six months later but under stringent conditions.
The April amendments merely restored the status quo ante. The difference is that editors agreed to submit to “self-regulation” — in return for the withdrawal of annual publishing licenses — and the government has expanded the scope of “self-regulation” to include broadcasters and online media.
A new regime of media control is taking shape and journalists are being co-opted into this by being part of the government’s “consultations.” Today’s discussions will probably be about the mechanisms of the new regime: how to control, who to control and how to punish.
Although the government views this favourably as “self-regulation,” control of the media lies at the heart of the government’s as-yet-unseen proposals by which editors and journalists will be drawn into the process.
It is common knowledge that:
Newspaper editors in September agreed to set up a press council based on the voluntary UK Press Complaints Council (now disbanded);
The government has expanded the scope to include broadcasting and online media and has on many occasions spoken about the need to control bloggers;
Individual editors, reporters, photographers and other journalists, and possibly bloggers, could face punitive action under the law;
In return for editors agreeing to set up a press council, the prime minister announced the withdrawal of annual newspaper licenses and a review of the Printing Presses and Publications Act;
The Attorney General (AG) has previously been quoted as being in favour of scrapping the press act altogether, but the Home Ministry has refused to give up its power to control who can publish and what they can publish, or the power to punish — through suspension or revocation of licenses, or by setting conditions on the licenses.
It is believed that the AG has a draft of a new law in hand. It is not known if it is a comprehensive media law or merely enables legislation to create a media council and to set out its powers. The draft has not been shown to editors, and details of the discussions have not been made public because the attorney general has requested press silence, perhaps seeking to avoid a public backlash and loud condemnations should his intentions be known.
He is probably right to fear a backlash. People in the computing business reacted strongly against moves to turn their trade into a “profession,” with closed-shop provisions restricting who can provide services.
Journalists have reason to fear similar intentions of turning journalism into a closed-shop “profession” with legislation to determine who is allowed to practice and setting punishment for not abiding by conventional norms.
Recent changes to Malaysian laws have already raised a public storm as the Attorney General’s Office continues to please the executive branch with new legislation that turn the stirring call of “reform” into merely a pleasant code word for repression.
That has been the case with abolition of the Internal Security Act and its replacement, the Security Offenses Act; the new “guilty until proven innocent” provisions of the amended Evidence Act; the new Peaceful Assembly Act that allows a police officer to determine how, where and when citizens may exercise their right to free speech; the new Computing Professionals Bill which seeks to regulate the computing business by creating a closed shop.
There is thus little reason to be optimistic about any new legislation that would result in the formation of a media council. Governments should have no role in regulating the citizens’ right to a free press and to freedom of speech unless it’s in the interest of public order. And journalists should take no part in assisting in the continuation of a repressive regime of media control.
By Gobind Rudra
The Malaysian Insider/Asia Sentinel
30 May 2012