Media at a tipping point

[Malaysia country report for Working within bounds: Southeast Asia’s Press Freedom Challenges for 2013. Original/print title: Media at a tipping point in Malaysia]

Barisan Nasional (BN) – the coalition, which has ruled Malaysia for 55 years since independence – is currently facing the most significant challenge to its political power and control on free expression in Malaysia’s history. It therefore stands at a rather precarious juncture, confronting a widening wave of dissent alongside demands for more democratic reforms from an increasingly emboldened public and a more organised opposition, a far cry from the simple domination BN has been used to for so long.

This makes 2012 all the more important, being the year in which the 13th general elections was anticipated to be held and BN’s five decades of power is being put to significant test. The media therefore plays an all the more important role in this regard, serving as a more contested domain for winning Malaysian hearts and minds.

The popularity of online media and the explosion of social media is a crucial factor in this political landscape. While BN still maintains a strong grip on traditional print and broadcast media, it is facing severe limitations in controlling online media and social media content. This has enabled the rapid growth of public awareness on human rights and media freedom-related issues, which has led to greater public exposure of government corruption, mismanagement and abuse of civil liberties. The success of BERSIH 3.0, whereby demands for electoral reforms are essentially spearheaded by the combined efforts of concerned civil society organisations and citizens, with Opposition parties throwing their weight behind it, is one such example. Online and social media played a crucial role in promoting BERSIH’s eight demands for electoral reforms, given the frequent distortions of BERSIH’s objectives by the BN-aligned print and broadcast media.

Additionally, the utilization of social media has enhanced not only awareness of basic civil liberties to Malaysians with Internet access, it has also enabled the expansion of local discourses to include and encourage political participation by overseas Malaysians. This is evident in the rapidly growing “Jom Balik Undi” (Go Home to Vote) campaign, and the Global Bersih movement that utilized tweets and Facebook shares and posts to their maximum capacities. It goes without saying that this makes it all the more difficult for those who are still loyal or sympathetic to BN to sustain their message and control the flow of information, namely because the rise of online and social media is exposing the problems and severe limitations of news coverage and analyses provided by traditional print and broadcast.

Reduced discretion

On 18 April 2012, acting on transformation promises made on the eve of Malaysia Day in 2011, Prime Minister Najib Razak tabled amendments to the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 (PPPA). Passed by Parliament on 20 April after a heated debate, the amendments lifted the Home Minister’s absolute discretion in granting printing press licenses and publishing permits, removed provisions for annual renewal of permits. It included the right to be heard for licenses which are suspended/revoked and reinstated judicial oversight over ministerial decisions.

The fact that publishing permits must still be granted and the minister has a right to revoke or suspend these permits means that the ruling government still has effective control over print media. Newspapers will still be subjected to show-cause letters and required to answer for publishing articles that displeased the ministry officials, which include coverage deemed as anti-Islam. Editors would also still be subject to calls from the ministry officials and politicians dispensing “advice”.

The Printing Presses and Publications Act, enacted in 1984, governs licensing permits for print publications. Publishing newspapers without a permit may be jailed for up to three years or be fined up to RM20,000 (USD 6,000).

The biggest recognition for the important role that media played in 2012 did not come from Najib Razak’s cosmetic changes but from the judiciary. A decision by the Kuala Lumpur High Court’s Appellate and Special Powers division on 1 Oct 2012 recognised the right to a newspaper permit as a right under freedom of expression and is therefore a fundamental liberty enshrined in the Federal Constitution. The judgement was given in favour of Malaysiakini whose application for a printing permit was rejected by the Home Minister.

Interference from all sides

Political influence wielded by the BN ruling coalition on media is the biggest source of interference, and the impact can be seen when coverage of the opposition is monitored. A useful indicator is the continued smearing of BN critics by BN-linked print and broadcast media. This can be seen daily and gets ratcheted up especially as the 13th General Elections approaches. The negative coverage of opposition Pakatan Rakyat politicians is apparent through the various defamation suits filed in 2012 by Pakatan Members of Parliament such as Khalid Samad, Theresa Kok, Lim Guan Eng and Anwar Ibrahim against Utusan Malaysia, a newspaper owned by UMNO, the leading party in BN. Lim won his suit while Kok settled out of court with Utusan and writer Chamil Wariya after both offenders apologised in statements read out in court.

Another growing source of interference in media comes from Malay-Muslim pressure groups on what is acceptable coverage on issues related to Islam. These groups claim that Islam has been mocked by coverage which they deem disrespectful of Islam and its position in the Federal Constitution. The whipping up of sentiments which purport Islam as being under attack is validated by the state through the issuance of show-cause letters from the Home Ministry. On 27 Feb 2012, the Home Ministry threatened to revoke The Star’s printing permit for publishing a photograph of singer Erykah Badu with tattoos, including one with the Arabic word for “Allah”, even after the newspaper published an apology in print and online on its own volition. Pressure to penalize The Star mounted after some Muslims protested after the apology, causing the newspaper to suspend two senior editors and set up an internal mechanism for Muslim editors to vet any coverage on Islam and issues pertaining to Muslims.

Instances of restricting media access to official proceedings and press conferences also happened in three states governed by Pakatan Rakyat. The Democratic Action Party-led government of Penang and the PAS-led governments of Kelantan and Kedah states denied Utusan Malaysia from attending and providing coverage of state assembly meetings. Though motivated by Utusan’s alleged false reporting of news on the Pakatan state governments, the ban is a suppression of the freedom of the press and an unhealthy precedent which restricts media’s access to state events.

Bersih 2.0 attacks

On 28 April 2012, tens of thousands of Malaysians gathered in Kuala Lumpur for Bersih 2.0, a rally demanding free and fair elections. The rally’s demand to use Dataran Merdeka (freedom square, a field in the heart of Kuala Lumpur that is supposed to symbolise independence and freedom) for the peaceful gathering was denied by a court injunction at the very last minute. Thus, thousands of extra police manpower was summoned by the Home Ministry to limit entry into the city on that day and guard the perimeters to keep protesters off the square.

When some protesters surrounding the sealed area of Dataran Merdeka breached the barricades, the police reacted with an all-out attack against the protestors. Tear gas canisters were fired into crowds consisting peaceful protesters, including seniors and children, and several journalists were attacked and beaten. Expensive photographic, video and other equipment relevant to documenting events at the scene were destroyed and/or seized and not returned. What is more troubling is that the Home Minister regarded the seizures as their standard operating procedure, a claim which was later refuted by the Inspector General of Police.

Injuries were also rampant:  Radzi Razak of the Sun, was admitted to the hospital after injuries suffered from attacks by at least seven policemen and had to have his jaw wired. Arif Kartono, a photographer for the Malay Mail was assaulted by six uniformed police personnel. Wong Onn Kin, a photographer with Guang Ming Daily, was punched in the back of the head by three policemen. P. Malayandy was assaulted by five policemen. Al-Jazeera correspondent Harry Fawcett alleged police violence when his crew was documenting arrests and ill-treatment of protesters. Fawcett told CIJ that he and his colleagues were shoved and held, and their camera equipment damaged during the incident. Channel News Asia video cameraperson Kenny Lew reported being punched by police and had his tripod seized.

When probed further, it was clear that the attacks against journalists were carried out despite the fact that members of the press wore clear identification as media providing coverage of the protest. The violence was condemned by the National Union of Journalists, with CIJ and five other journalist and media freedom groups endorsing a common statement decrying the targeting of press photographers and videographers. Journalists behind setting up of the Institute of Journalists Malaysia and those assaulted during Bersih 2.0 also handed over a memorandum asking for calls for action against the policemen.

Only two officers were charged with using criminal violence against the Guang Ming Daily photographer, and both were acquitted on 30 Nov 2012. To this day, other assaults against journalists and the loss and damage of media equipment remain unaddressed. There has yet to be any offer or consideration of far-reaching reforms by Malaysia to provide better protection for media and journalists as called for by the UN Inter Agency Action Plan on Safety of Journalists.

There were other instances of attacks against journalists. At the Himpunan Hijau (Green Rally against the rare earth Lynas plant in Kuantan) on Penang Island on 28 February 2012, two journalists from Kwong Wah Yit Poh, Adam Chew and Lee Hong Chun, were attacked by pro-Lynas supporters. Both lodged police reports on the attack and the violence against journalists was condemned by the National Union of Journalists Malaysia.

 

Added layer of control

The proposedstatutory media council has also raised much cause for concern. While the idea has surfaced even back in the 1970s and a bill was floated around in 2001, the latest government proposal was introduced to select editors and the National Union of Journalists by the Attorney General in May 2012. While a self-regulatory media council can help to uphold the standards of journalistic freedom and independence, any initiative led by the Government instead of by the industry will function as another layer of control over media, especially when laws which curtail media independence remain intact.

The statutory media council proposal also fuelled the decision by a group of media practitioners, former and retired journalists to meet on World Press Freedom Day in 2012 to discuss setting up the Institute of Journalists Malaysia. The journalist-led body aims to advance the professionalism of journalists in Malaysia through developing standards, values and ethics, and improving skills through training and certification. A group was also tasked with registering or incorporating the institute, which will function as an independent body to also defend media freedom and freedom of expression.

Meanwhile, the ownership of Malaysia’s major news outlets still remain highly concentrated among political parties in the BN ruling coalition, Government-linked companies or commercial owners friendly to BN. This domination in print and broadcast media is unlikely to change in the near future. This leaves the Internet as the only medium, which has managed to fend off BN ownership’s hegemony. While coverage of issues by a private radio station, Business FM (bfm) has been commendable, its reach and influence is limited to its broadcast area in the capital and to English speakers.

More online news sites

The year 2012 also saw the emergence of more new media to help widen the source of news and alternative analyses and perspectives compared to mainstream views. New publications include fz.com, a portal run by the Edge, Malaysia’s leading financial daily. Focus Malaysia was also launched in 2012, and while it is largely committed to financial news, the weekly business magazine does extend its coverage to include current affairs. Leading online news site Malaysiakini started promoting its business news portal KiniBiz in 2012, launched early 2013.

Outlook

While BN has been described as pursuing a “transformation” agenda, events in 2012 show that the outgoing Prime Minister Najib Razak’s promises has not translated to meaningful improvements in the state of media freedom. BN’s reform agenda was born amidst insecurities of losing significant ground after the March 2008 elections, when they lost their two-third grip of Parliament, which for more than five decades enabled them effective control over laws and policies. Changes to media laws are seen as cosmetic to regain public confidence rather than motivated by a fundamental belief in media freedom.

In the meantime, Malaysians concerned with the state of civil liberties will continue to utilize online and social media to keep pursuing the possibility of a free and open Malaysia. Media will remain a key battle ground therein, but it is clear that Malaysians’ rising expectation for democratic change will make it difficult for BN, or any ruling coalition for that matter, to go back to the old means of restricting and narrowing political discourse.