With at least 70 participants from media and civil society groups in attendance, a two-day national consultation on the formation of a national media council concluded Tuesday, 5 March 2019, on a high note in the Malaysian capital.
Organized jointly by the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) and the Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights (MCCHR), the event, held at Impiana KLCC Hotel, tackled the whys and wherefores of setting up a media council in Malaysia, including relevant media issues, and aimed to carve out a road map for its establishment.
Toward the end of the second and final day of the event, the organizers and participants alike – representing media institutions, civil society, and select public institutions – agreed to set up a steering committee to spearhead discussions on the next steps toward the eventual formation of a Malaysia Media Council (MMC). A consensus was also reached that the council must be independent of government and must not include media owners.
Other issues discussed were the formulation of an industry-wide code of ethics, funding, and composition. Whether the anticipated council must impose punitive measures or should be statutory or voluntary were also tackled.
The consultation is one of ongoing efforts in Malaysia toward setting up a national media council. Whether such efforts will lead to the formation of a singular national press council in Malaysia is not clear.
What is clear, however, is that “it is one of the important priorities of the new administration as seen in the recent statements of the Communications and Multimedia Minister and the media reform adviser to the Prime Minister,” said CIJ in a statement.
“I have been talking to several groups of people to encourage them to do this (media council) as quickly as possible. The new government is coming to one year very soon and there are still many promises yet to be delivered, particularly in the area of reforms. Many more laws that we promised we will repeal or amend are yet to be repealed or amended,” said Datuk A. Kadir Jasin, Special Advisor on Media and Communications to the Prime Minister, who gave the keynote address.
The new government of Malaysia under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad campaigned on a promise of bold institutional reforms including those on the media. Among these are the repeal of repressive laws and the establishment of MMC.
Amid the urgent need to form such a body, the majority of the participants who graced the consultation agreed that Malaysia’s controversial laws on the media, including the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) 1984,must be repealed ahead of, if not around the same time as, the council’s formation. CIJ director Sonia Rhandawa said they hope to see the law repealed “as soon as possible.”
The aim of a media council is to promote and regulate media ethics, uphold professionalism through standard setting, and promote and uphold media freedom, says CIJ in its concept note for the just concluded event. Across the region, the countries where a media or press council has been formed are Thailand, Timor-Leste, Myanman, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
During the consultation, Tess Bacalla, executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), said an independent media council promotes media credibility and public trust, as well as protects press freedom and welfare. She also talked about the experience of the Cebu Citizens-Press Council in the Philippines as an example of a successful media self-regulatory mechanism marked by sustained dialogue between the local media and the public, leading to enhanced public trust in the press, as well as resolution of complaints against the press that otherwise could have led to court cases, or punitive actions against target journalists or media practitioners.
Study on media self-regulation
As part of the consultation, CIJ and MCCHR released a joint study that looked into the concept of self-regulation and the Malaysian media against the backdrop of legal restrictions, existing fragmentation in the media landscape, and increasing complaints about the substandard practice of journalism in the country.
“Recent developments, in particular the Pakatan Harapan commitment to repeal the PPPA (Publication and Printing Presses Act 1984) and other repressive legislation, have revived discussion of a self-regulatory body – a Media Council – to include all producers of news regardless of media.”
The study provides a brief overview of the historical background of press councils around the world, the Malaysian media landscape, and models of existing press councils. It also provides several discussion points on, and a proposed draft constitution for the Media Council.
“Recent discussions, since the formation of the new Government in May 2018, have focused on self-regulatory body recognized in statute, with the media advisor to the Prime Minister, A Kadir Jasin, making it clear that the government expects initiatives to come from the media themselves.”
The study noted PPPA as one of the main obstacles to forming a media council, highlighting the need repeal it alongside similar laws before constituting such a body.
“The press felt that the industry was already tightly regulated due to the provisions of this Act (PPPA), which includes provisions for licensing which give the Home Minister the power to reject, restrict, or rescind (media) licenses.”