Reporting in an election year

by the Center for Independent Journalism (CIJ Malaysia)

Press freedom in Malaysia cannot be analysed without mention of the 2013 election. While Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak predicted that the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition would regain its two-thirds majority in Parliament, the ruling coalition was instead dealt further losses. The coalition retained power, but with a further erosion in the number of votes and seats.

The BN’s weakened grip on political power has been both cause and consequence of the attempt to negotiate between the demand for political liberalisation, including liberalisation of the media, and the elite concern with losing political influence and patronage. Examples of this include the repeal of the notorious Internal Security Act (ISA), which allowed for detention without trial among other repressive measures, which was then replaced by the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, which re-enacted many of the most oppressive provisions of the ISA.

Thus, while there is increasing pressure from various actors including the media and civil society for greater freedom of expression, and an increased willingness to test the boundaries of state repression, there are also actors who are pushing for the state to take action against those seen as challenging its authority, many of whom appear to be aligned closely with the BN.

Violence against journalists

In the run-up to the 5 May elections, reporter Liang Hui Fang of the Chinese daily newspaper Nanyang Siang Pau was widely reported to have been attacked as she attempted to take photographs of a BN operations room in the east coast state of Pahang.

It is unclear why Liang’s photographs provoked hostility from the BN workers, who attempted to snatch her camera, then followed her to her car which was surrounded by around 10 party workers who kicked the car and attempted to smash the windows. Liang recorded the incident on her camera.

The police officer on duty at the nearby station refused to take her report, and instead ordered her to delete her photographs. Liang complied, but was able to later recover them and lodged a second police report. The incident occurred on 23 April, around two weeks prior to the General Election.

A second incident occurred in the opposition-held State of Penang two days later. A photo-journalist with the China Press was reported to have been punched by a group of motorcyclists wearing blue 1Malaysia T-shirts, associated with the ruling coalition. The group was disrupting a public talk by the Democratic Action Party (DAP) when they attacked Sin Kan Weng, who was punched on the side of the head.

Attempted censorship of news outlets

Around the same time, radio station BFM (Business FM) was warned by the broadcasting regulator, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), that its license terms were limited to the coverage of business- and finance-related content. The station is known for its independent coverage of news and current affairs. This ‘reminder’ was seen as an attempt to muzzle the station’s political coverage during the General Election. The station, however, continued with its ‘Battle for Malaysia’ coverage as planned, and appears to have not faced repercussions.

This case again clearly illustrates the conflicting pressures state institutions (and presumably their political bosses) are facing – in the face of a broadcaster’s refusal to ‘understand’ the warning given by the MCMC, the government and its regulator were unwilling to face the public backlash that would have resulted if they took action against BFM. It should be noted that, given its limited broadcast area, the political influence of BFM coverage is also marginal – if the coverage area were larger, and aimed more squarely at the heartland of BN support (for example, broadcasting in Malay), the outcome may have been different.

Various independent news and opposition websites suffered DDOS (distributed denial of service) attacks in the weeks leading up to the election. In March 2013, the DAP website suffered three attacks in one week; while other targeted sites include The Malaysian Insider, Malaysiakini.com, The Sarawak Report and the Islamic party Pas’ HarakahDaily.com.

The harassment of Radio Free Malaysia (RFM) extended to harassing people who appeared on the radio station. Both RFM and Radio Free Sarawak (RFS) are available to a Malaysian audience (the latter in Sarawak only) on the internet and via an analogue radio receiver. A popular singer, Yasin Sulaiman, who was interviewed by RFM, was later called in by the MCMC for appearing on the station. While the Commission said that he was being called to provide information about the station, as it was broadcasting illegally, it is clear that the Commission has been selective in its prosecution, having not called in any of the other guests who have appeared on the station, nor on RFS, which has been broadcasting for a longer period.

Several local internet service providers (ISPs) restricted access to Malaysiakini.com from April 2013. While the Government has claimed that it issued no orders to restrict access, some of the ISPs in question claim that they were directed to deny access to the popular news site.

Various political social media accounts were also targeted by hackers. On 3 May, Digital News Asia reported that this appeared to be a pattern targeting diversity of opinion.

On 20 December 2013, a weekly newspaper, The Heat, had its license suspended, having started publication in September. Under the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA), all newspapers require a publication license. This suspension indicates that recent changes to the Act were superficial. The official reason for the decision is unknown, but commentators believe it was linked to a front page story regarding the Prime Minister’s wife.

Manipulation of foreign media and news sources

The Malaysian government managed to manipulate foreign media including The Huffington Post and The Washington Post, by paying reporters to write critically of the opposition, particularly Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) leader Anwar Ibrahim. More than 10 journalists confessed to having accepted money from the Malaysian government.

Financial pressures limiting diversity

A month prior to the general election, the opposition-linked print publication Selangor Times closed due to lack of funds. While its closure was due to financial rather than political constraints, it further reduced the diversity of views available to the electorate in Selangor at a crucial political moment.

This follows a pattern seen in other news outlets, for example, the closing down of the Chinese-language website Merdeka Review in 2012. The Nut Graph closed down its offer, and most online outlets face ongoing financial difficulties.

The persecution of Lena Hendry

During the annual Freedom Film Festival, Pusat KOMAS, a local communications NGO, screened a documentary on the last weeks of the Sri Lankan civil war, ‘No Fire Zone’. Coming under pressure from the Sri Lankan government, in the middle of the screening, around 30 Home Ministry officers stopped the movie. They then detained three KOMAS members on 3 July 2013, namely Board member Anna Har; executive director Arul Prakkash; and staff member Lena Hendry.

While all three were released, Lena Hendry, the most junior of those detained, was later charged with an offence under the Film Censorship Act. She is the first person to have been charged under this section of the Act, which states that no film should be shown without the prior approval of the Film Censorship Board.

The Sedition Act and its uses

Student activist Adam Adli Abdul Halim rose to prominence prior to the 2012 Bersih rally, after being suspended from the Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI) for lowering a flag showing a picture of the Prime Minister in 2011. While students and activists rallied to his side, he continued to push the boundaries of freedom of expression for students by participating publicly in both the Bersih rally and the ‘Occupy Padang Merbok’ movement, Malaysia’s incarnation of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

On 23 May, Adam Adli was charged with sedition for comments made during a post-election rally ten days earlier. At a post-election forum, Adam Adli called upon Malaysians to take to the streets because “only people power can topple a government” in a “third world country” such as Malaysia.

Another ongoing sedition case is that of Karpal Singh, who was charged in 2009 for having questioned the legality of the Perak Sultan’s role during the state’s constitutional crisis. The ability of the Perak State Government, controlled by the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) who were in opposition at the federal level, to continue to govern was called into question after several members of the state legislature change allegiance, or rescinded their membership of the PR parties. Rather than allowing the Chief Minister to face a vote of no confidence or, as requested, dissolve the state legislature and call for new elections, the Sultan fired the incumbent, Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin. In a press conference on 6 February 2009, veteran DAP MP and lawyer Karpal Singh gave his opinion that this was legally questionable.

The High Court found that the prosecution had not managed to establish a prima facie case in 2010, but this decision was overturned by the Court of Appeal in February 2012. The case throws a shadow of the right of both lawyers and legislators to voice opinions about the law. (Note: Kapral Singh died in a traffic accident on 17 April 2014.)

Religion has been increasingly used as grounds for censoring opinion and harassing minorities in Malaysia. While the country is Muslim-majority, since the mid-1990s, a particular school of Islamic thought has been officially sanctioned, with other strands of Muslim thought and jurisprudence not recognised and, in the case of Shia Muslims, intermittently faced persecution. The state’s attempt to regulate and make uniform religious interpretation results in different interpretations being criminalised and actions that are seen as being outside the religious norm being prosecuted.

Thus, during the fasting month of Ramadhan, a blogger known as Chetz (Maznah Mohd Yusof) faced prosecution for posting a Youtube video in which she bathed and pampered a dog. Given the dominant interpretation in Malaysia that dogs are haram, that Chetz is a Muslim and that she performed these acts in an apparently deliberate Muslim setting, the video was condemned as being blasphemous. Chetz, however, defended it as a symbol of animal rights, and a plea for all creatures to be treated equally. She was arrested on 30 July 2013 and remanded for sedition, but was not charged.

Also during the fasting month, two bloggers known collectively as ‘Alvivi’ (Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee) posted a photograph on their Facebook page showing a pork dish, Bak Kut Teh, with the slogan ‘Enjoy breaking your fast’ and a picture of the official seal of the Religious Affairs Department (Jakim). Alvivi were charged on 18 July under Section 298A of the Penal Code, a broad-ranging section on using religion to create ‘disharmony’ and ‘ill-will’; and Section 4 of the Sedition Act. Section 298A has previously been used to detain bloggers and online commentators, though it rarely results in a successful prosecution.

The couple were also charged under the Film Censorship Act with having posted pornographic images on their now-defunct blog.

The Kalimah Allah issue

On 14 October 2013, the Court of Appeal overturned a 2009 High Court ruling, thus effectively limiting the use of the word ‘Allah’ to Muslims, at least on Peninsular Malaysia. Upholding government claims that the use of the word by Christians in particular was ‘confusing’ to Muslims, the court ruled that a Catholic weekly publication, the Herald, did not have the right to use the word ‘Allah’, because it is not an integral part of the Christian faith.

Christians in Malaysia, particularly East Malaysia, have used the world ‘Allah’ for God for at least four centuries, but in 1986, the Government banned the use of the words ‘Allah’, ‘solat’, ‘Kaabah’ and ‘Baitullah’ by non-Muslims. The Herald continued to use the word ‘Allah’ and was issued with three warning letters and a show-cause letter in 2007, and was threatened with losing its license in 2008. In 2009, the High Court ruled, on the grounds of religious freedom, that the paper could continue publication. However, in an unusual move, the Appeals Court granted a ‘stay’ on the order, maintaining the ban on the use of the word ‘Allah’.

The Appeals Court ruling, based on religious grounds, poses a threat to both freedom of expression and freedom of religion. The ruling was, however, welcomed by vocal groups that have opposed the non-Muslim use of the word ‘Allah’, in part due to a campaign of fear which has painted this as an attempt to evangelise Muslims, and cause disunity among Malays.

Threats and responses

The voices of repression, particularly on religious grounds, are gaining in strength, and that a weakened state gives them an elevated platform from which to speak. However, popular support for human rights groups and rights-based political speech and action has also been swelling. It is evident in the repression being faced by the Shia community in particular that all sides of the party political spectrum are challenged by non-political party voices calling for repression on religious, particularly Islamic, grounds. These calls find support in PAS, PKR and UMNO. There is opposition to these calls within all these parties, as well as among their coalition members.

The ability of human rights groups, and media freedom groups, in particular to respond to these issues remains hampered by the lack of resources. While support is strong in urban areas, the ability of these groups to work outside the major cities has an impact upon their ability to garner popular support for a rights-based framework for legislation and broader civil discourse. Too often, human rights is successfully portrayed as being anti-religion and the preserve of middle-class city-dwellers.

Forecast and outlook

The climate for freedom of expression is likely to remain volatile as long as the ruling coalition has a tenuous grip on power. With more voices claiming the right to speak and a broader interest in both defending and opposing human rights, including freedom of expression, the ongoing contest between Barisan Nasional and the Pakatan Rakyat makes the work of both journalists and media freedom advocates more difficult and inevitably seen as being party political.

There are, however, positive developments that can be built upon.

First, there is an emerging consensus in the need for political reform to strengthen freedom of expression – except in the arena of religious affairs. Second, legislation on freedom of information that was passed in Penang and Selangor needs to be tested and strengthened so these test states can be the launching pad for nationwide access to information reform. Third, outside the party political processes, exciting developments in terms of grassroots movements are happening, such as the support for Adam Adli, the anti-Lynas environmental movement and Occupy Dataran. While these are in some ways sporadic and issue-specific, they are opening up the space for human rights-based discourse in new and exciting ways.