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By PARVEEN GILL (former journalist, The Star/Malay Mail) Dpt. Of Modern Languages SHAHPUTRA COLLEGE
Tan Sri Harun Mahmud Hashim Former vice-chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) Freedom of Speech, Communication and the Press wrote: “In any democratic country, media freedom is equated with freedom of expression. This freedom would normally be enshrined in the national constitution as a right, not a privilege. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’.” April 2008
WHAT IS MALAYSIA’S RANKING IN THE ANNUAL PRESS FREEDOM INDEX?
The Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Press Freedom Index: (169 countries) 124th 92nd 113th 122nd 104th 110th in 2007 ABDULLAH AHMAD BADAWI’ ERA in 2006 in 2005 in 2004 in 2003 DR MAHATHIR’S ERA in 2002
What can we be proud about? Malaysia (124th), Thailand (135th), Egypt (146th) and Vietnam (162nd) Are we better than Combodia in 2007? Malaysia 124th Combodia 85th
Zainah Anwar Executive Director of Sisters in Islam Freedom of Press in Malaysia “I tell friends that my one wish every year is to wake up in the morning and read just one newspaper as my main source of information about Malaysia, instead of having to scour through newspapers, magazines, online news and blogosphere to find out what is truly going on in this country and how people feel about a issue.” Aug 2007
IS THE GOVERNMENT REALLY SERIOUS ABOUT PROMOTING REEDOM OF PRESS?
Uphold the truth, Abdullah tells media PM: Media must report boldly PUTRAJAYA: The media must not be afraid of honest reporting while upholding truth and justice, said Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. He said the media should also not feel apologetic when reporting the facts. “Hold strongly to the principles of truth as the credibility of an institution depends on it,” he said, adding that communication technology and channels could be used both constructively and destructively. Abdullah said the two could be used as instruments to uphold principles of justice while spreading only the facts. “News content with negative elements that spread lies and slander will only bring about disunity and destruction,” he said when launching Bernama Web TV, South-East Asia’s first live Internet news channel, at the Prime Minister’s Office here yesterday.
Bernama Web TV can be accessed at www.bernama-tv.com. It is a version of the 24-hour news channel available on Astro Channel 502 and is provided free. Abdullah hoped that the Internet news channel which would bring real time news, would become the top choice for people wanting accurate news throughout the world. “This service will help foreigners and Malaysian students abroad to follow the developments in the country,” he said. Abdullah said that faced with a very challenging world economy and the people feeling the pressures of life, it was most important that the Government’s efforts and proactive measures be well disseminated. Realising the importance of effective communication, he said, news of the Government’s efforts would also help increase the people’s appreciation towards it. BERNAMA Thursday September 4, 2008
WHY ARE MALAYSIAN JOURNALISTS CRYING FOUL?
During the American Reveloution, a free press was identified by Revolutionary leaders as one of the elements of liberty that they sought to preserve. The Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776) proclaimed that "the freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty and can never be restrained but by despotic governments." Similarly, the Constitution of Massachusetts (1780) declared, "The liberty of the press is essential to the security of freedom in a state: it ought not, therefore, to be restrained in this commonwealth." Following these examples, the FIRST AMENDMENT to the UNITED STATES CONSTITUTION restricts congress from adriging the freedom of Press and the closely associated freedom of speech. What does it mean? In the Unites States of America, the government cannot act in advance to stop you from saying, printing, or broadcasting, but can hold you accountable afterwards. In Malaysia, journalists and newspapers face legal and extra legal challenges that make it difficult if not impossible to report fair and accurately, without fear.
WHAT ARE THE PROBLEMATIC LAWS HINDERING JOURNALIST FROM CARRYING OUT THEIR DUTIES WITH FEAR?
1. Official Secrets Act allows for official documents, materials or information to be classified as top secret, for reasons that cannot be questioned in court.
In Malaysia, getting the information one needs is often a tedious affair and can be downright frustrating not just for journalists but for the man in the street because there are no Freedom of Information (FOI) laws. Since the mid-1970s, there have been calls for FOI laws. DAP Member of Parliament Lim Kit Siang tried, unsuccessfully, to move a Private Member’s Bill on FOI in 1976. Ten years later, a public campaign against amendments to the Official Secrets Act took place. And since Suhakam was set up in 1999, several groups, including journalists, have called for the right to information. TO DATE THE CALL FOR FOI HAS FALLEN ON DEAF EARS.
Zainah on why the Official Secrets Act should be repealed: “… One of the most progressive Right to Information acts was passed by the Indian parliament in 2005 which enables a citizen to ask for information from the central government or local authorities and even to inspect public works and take samples.” Every public authority must have a public information officer who must respond to citizen’s request for information within 30 days, or if the request concerns the life or liberty of a person, within 48 hours.
Why does Malaysia need a freedom of information law? There are strong links between an open government and a country’s corruption level. Notice the number of Scandinavian countries that are on Transparency International’s recent rankings of the Top 10 least corrupt nations. “…the countries which are the most corrupt-free, such as Scandinavian countries, have FOI laws and high levels of openness.” Tunku Abdul Aziz Tunku Ibrahim Former president Transparency International Malaysia Without FOI laws, governments—whether federal, state or local—are under no compulsion to reveal information and as such, cannot be held accountable. The upshot is that corruption festers.
1. 1957 Defamation Act has allowed for legal action against nearly every newspaper and television station between July 2000 and March 2001. High-priced law suits, of up to about US$27 million, have been filed against the press. 3. 1960 Internal Security Act is one of several which allows the police to prohibit publication, circulation, and possession of subversive publications or documents that incite violence, breach of law or peace, or which jeopardize the country’s national interest or security. It also allows for detention without trial of people deemed a threat to national security; a Malaysiakini columnist was detained for two years under this act in 2001.
THE PRINTING PRESSES AND PUBLICATIONS ACT 1984
Wednesday, 10 May 2000 “The Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 empowers the Minister of Home Affairs in his absolute discretion to grant to any person a permit to print and publish a newspaper in Malaysia. The maximum period for which a permit is granted under the Act is 12 months. Any decision of the Minister to refuse to grant or to suspend a permit shall be final and shall not be called in question by any court on any ground whatsoever. Under the Act no person shall be given an opportunity to be heard with regard to his application for a permit.” “...Whatever may have been the wisdom behind such unparalleled legislative provisions in the past, it cannot be justified in the current environment in which the Government is encouraging the development of the Multimedia Super Corridor in which it is virtually impossible to impose censorship.” Haji Sulaiman Abdul President Malaysia Bar Council (The Malaysian bar council Public statement on press freedom in Malaysia/ May 10, 2000)
IMPLICATIONS: Every year, media representatives have to obtain a permit to print and publish their newspapers. If they by any chance have not adhered to the government’s expectation of them, their permit will not be renewed. The Home Ministry does not need to explain the reason for rejection. If newspapers do not obtain permits from the ministry, the cannot print and publish their newspapers.
CASE IN POINT: Wednesday April 16, 2008 Tamil daily Makkal Ossai suspended “KUALA LUMPUR: The Home Ministry has decided not to renew the publication permit of Tamil daily Makkal Osai. The newspaper's general manager S.M. Periasamy said that they were informed of the decision by a telephone call from the Home Ministry Wednesday morning. "When I went to the ministry to check if this was true, they handed me the letter rejecting the renewal of our licence," he said. The letter did not state any reasons for the rejection.”
IMPLICATIONS: 3.Any journalist, who fails to disclose their source when questioned by police is deemed to have committed an offence in law for obstructing a police officer from conducting investigations. It is a crimical offense punishable by two years in prison and possible fine. 5.Any journalist, who is summonded to court for an article that has been written and published by court, must disclose information about their sources if the judge requires them to do so. A journalist can chose not to but would be held liable for Contempt of Court. An imprisonment sentence will be passed.
CASE IN POINT: 1. January 2008 Syed Jaymal Zahiid, a correspondent for the online news provider Malaysiakini was arrested and charged for obstructing a police officer while he was covering a demonstration protesting high food costs in Kuala Lumpur in January 2008. Pending Criminal Case on June 14
2. December, 2001 The Sun newspaper had front-paded an acticle about the alleged assaissination plot againt (the then) Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohammad and Home Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, courting police sources, on December 25, 200. Dec 26 - PM and DPM denied report saying story could potentially damage Malaysia's international reputation and discourage foreign investment. The same day, officials at the Ministry of Home Affairs called a meeting with The Sun’s chief news editor, Robert Ho. Dec 26, editor-in-chief H'ng Hung Yong resigned. Dec 27, The Sun published a retraction. Robert Ho, reporter R. Manirajan, and photographer Anita Mohamad Nasir had been suspended. Dec 27, another senior editor named Andy Ng resigned from the paper to protest the suspension of his colleagues. The Board of Directors appointed a shareholder with no editorial experience to replace Ng. The new editor then suspended the managing Editor Cheng Chong Hai. Ng and the other editors have consistently stood by the December 25 story, saying that government officials verified the report.
DEFAMATION In Malaysia, as well as other countries in the world, journalists are subjected to defamation suits. This is not criminal by nature but civil and if a judge rules that statement have been defamatory, the judge usually will instruct the newspaper, and not the journalists, to pay a certain amount of damages to the plaintiff. However, in most cases there are repercussions for the journalist. (see extra legal). In Malaysia, everyone seems to sue the newspapers and there is nothing to prohibit them from filing a defamation suit even though the court may struck out the suit.
IMPLICATIONS: Anything said (verbal) or done (written) can be used against a journalist or a publications if: •it is a false statement about a man to his discredit •it exposes him to hatred, ridicule or contempt •cause a person to be shunned or avoided •has a tendency to injure him in his office, professional or trade •lends to lower the person referred to in the estimation of right thinking members of society in generally In the circumstances a direct accusation by one party against the other however obnoxious or painful it may be to the person addressed in the absence of a third party or so long as it is not conveyed to a third party will not give rise to cause of action in defamation.
CASE IN POINT: 1. Datuk Sharifah Aini Syed Jaafar filed a defamation suit against former entertainment journalist Fauziah Mohd Johar or Zieman in April 2004 over remarks made in a conversation with journalist Saodah Ismail of the Agendadaily about the “Johor Ghazal Symphony Concert with Sharifah Anin at Istana Budaya.” Oct 29, 2008 High Court struck out suit. 2. MP for Pokok Sena Mahfuz Omar filed a similar suit against Utusan Melayu Berhad for publishing libelous words in the heading of Utusan Malaysia newspaper, headline: “Demonstrasi-Mahfuz istihar bersame Keadilan” on March 4, 2001. Dec 23, 2008 High Court awarded RM120,000 as damages for libellous words published against him.
•In Oct 1994, the High Court awarded RM7mil libel award to a business tycoon Vicent Tan over articles published in a local magazine. The defendants were journalist M G G Pillai (2 million), editor Hassan Hamzah (3 million), publisher Media Printext (2 million), printer Ling Wah Press (1 million) and three other individuals (2 million) for defaming Tan in four Malaysian Industry magazine articles. ''Low and cheap awards will only send a wrong signal and will become a license to libel the respondent and other people with impunity,'' Chief Justice Eusoff Chin ''The implications of this judgment on journalism, already parlous in this country, and journalists, are horrendous. It reduces them to being public relations officers to the high and mighty. It will now be harder for journalists to probe the often unhealthy nexus between politics and business.” Journalist M G G Pillai
THE INTERNAL SECURITY ACT 1960 Preventive detention first became a feature of the then Malaya in 1948 primarily to combat the armed insurgency of the Malayan Communist Party during the Malayan Emergency. The Emergency Regulations Ordinance 1948 was made, following the proclamation of an emergency, by the British High Commissioner Sir Edward Gent. It allowed the detention of persons for any period not exceeding one year.
The 1948 ordinance was primarily made to counter acts of violence and, conceivably, preventive detention was meant to be temporary in application. The emergency ended in 1960 and with it ended the powers contained in the that ordinance as it was repealed. The power of preventive detention was however not relinquished and in fact became an embedded feature of Malaysian law. In 1960 itself, the government passed the Internal Security Act under Article 149 of the Malaysian Constitution. It permitted the detention, at the discretion of the Home Minister, without charge or trial of any person in respect of whom the Home Minister was satisfied that such detention was necessary to prevent him or her from acting in any manner prejudicial to national security or to the maintenance of essential services or to the economic life in Malaysia.
IMPLICATIONS: Anyone including journalist can be arrested without trial and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Worse, they do not have to threaten national security.
CASE IN POINT: On Sept 13, 2008, Sin Chew Daily reporter Tan Hoon Cheng was arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in Penang. The reason for her arrest under ISA was because she had writen an article, reporting that former Bukit Bendera Umno division chief Datuk Ahmad Ismail had made racist remarks while campaiging for the Permatang Pauh by-election. Lee Kelvin from Guang Ming and Tan Ming Xau from Nanyang Siang Pau had vouched for the accuracy of Tan’s report. “While we may want to be popular, freedom without responsibilities has famications. We have to take action to protect the wishes of the majority.” Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar
This had caused uproar among Malaysians including ministers, opposition leaders, the media, Non-government organisations and the National Bar Council. Tan was released 16 hours later (although she could have been detained for 60 days) and the Home Minister tried to justify her arrest saying that her security was under threat.
The media of Malaysia include television, radio, newspapers and wed-based media such as bloggers. Many media outlets are either owned directly by the government (e.g Bernama) or owned by component parties of the Barisan Nasional coalition government (e.g the Media Prima group, which is owned by the United Malays National Organisation). There are over 30 newspapers and tabloids published mainly in Malay, English, Chinese and Tamil. The most prominent newspapers include the The Star, New Straits Times, Berita Harian, Utusan Malaysia, Sin Chew Jit Poh and Nanyang Siang Pau.
State-owned RTM operates two free-to-air terrestrial local television channels licensed to broadcast in Malaysia, as well as 32 radio channels nationwide. Meanwhile, Media Prima is the parent company of four television channels and two radio channels The Star The New Straits Times The Malay Mail Berita Harian Harian Metro Utusan Malaysia Kosmo! Nanban Nanyang Siang Pau Sin Chew Jit Poh Guang Ming Daily China Press TV3 RTM 1 RTM 2 NTV 7 MCA UMNO UMNO UMNO UMNO UMNO UMNO MIC MCA MCA MCA MCA UMNO UMNO UMNO UMNO
2. The other media: Harakah Malaysiakini Keadilan Rocket (newspaper) (on-line portal) (newspaper) (newsletter) PAS PKR PKR DAP
TO WHAT EXTEND DOES THE ‘EXTRA LEGAL LAWS’ AFFECT JOURNALISM IN MALAYSIA?
“But Ng was standing by the story, saying that it was checked above and beyond the norm for weeks before it was published. "We spoke to a deputy minister and a deputy press secretary on this matter ... but no one, among those whom we checked with, said we cannot run it." said News Editor Andy Ng. Dire Straits – Cold off the Press Jan 4, 2002 Online Asia Times
DEC 29, 2001: "PM satisfied with resignations of the EditorinChief and the Editor of The Sun” satisfied with the toplevel editorial resignations in the Sun. There should be no criminal prosecution of any kind arising from the incident but a full explanation as to how such a frontpage story came to be published by senior and experienced journalist cannot be accused of being antinational elements would be the conditions and culture under which Malaysian journalists have to work. DEC 30, 2001: "DPM accepts The Sun's apology".
Malaysian Leader Won't Lift Shutdown of a Popular Daily THE NEW YORK TIMES November 8, 1987 LEAD: The Government of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has rejected an appeal by The Star against the shutdown of the popular English-language daily on Oct. 28. The Government of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has rejected an appeal by The Star against the shutdown of the popular English-language daily on Oct. 28.
The Star as well as The Sunday Star, the Chinese-language Sin Chew Jit Poh and the Malay-language weekly Watan were ordered to cease publication with no cause given. The Government also arrested 93 political, religious and public-interest critics. The Prime Minister told reporters in Kuala Lumpur Friday that the press had been contributing to racial tensions in Malayasia by printing too much on sensitive topics, according to the official press agency. The press agency, Bernama, reported that Prime Minister Mahathir, in rejecting The Star's appeal, had said the Government ''would continue to practice its liberal and open policy, but this should not be taken to mean people could do or say what they liked.''
THERE SHOULD BE NO PROBLEMS BECAUSE BOTH SIDES ARE REPORTING ON THEIR ‘MASTERS’
“That is so wrong. As long as newspapers are ‘owned’ by the government or the opposition, there will never be freedom of the press. It would be a classic case of a pendullum. The progovernment media agencies will of course report nice things about the government and ‘the anti-government’ media will write not nice things about the government and how they have been ‘ill-treated’. Both sides will be reporting to the extreme sides to please their so-called ‘masters.’
“We are in the 21st century and while it is true that information is available at our finger tips, people just don’t have the time to read all the papers and websites. And even if they do, they would be some-what confused of which media is reporting the truth. “Unlike the United States, all media corporation are private by nature so balance reporting is permisseable and expected from journalists.
“We have a long road ahead of us. We have not even won 10 % of our battle and until and unless, ‘journalist are media owned’ instead of government or opposition owned, journalists in Malaysia will always be subjected to demoralising remarks made by the public about their partiality in reporting.” An Associate Editor Mainstream Media Feb, 2009
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