The Malaysian government has been criticized for its veiled threats against a newspaper over advertisements of non-halal food published by the largest circulating English daily, The Star, during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
Media freedom advocacy group Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) said in a statement that the government should not have exerted undue pressure on the newspaper daily especially since it has issued two public apologies.
The 10 August supplement featured dining out during the Ramadan month and it contained photographs of non-halal dishes and eateries. Ramadan is observed by the Muslim community that makes up about 60% of the population. Among others, meat not slaughtered according to Islamic rites and pork are considered non-halal.
The newspaper has been issued a show-cause letter and its Group Editor-in-Chief Wong Chun Wai summoned to the Ministry of Home Affairs for violation under the Printing Presses and Publications Act, ironically a day after Prime Minister Najib Razak called for a review of restrictive laws, saying that those were no longer “effective” in the current context.
In a media statement dated 17 August, CIJ viewed The Star’s oversight as clearly unintentional given the common understanding about the halal issue in the country and that the error has caused no actual harm and confusion.
“Viewed in this light, the ministry’s intervention and rejection of the first apology, which was published in the paper on 12 August, are highly disproportionate, reflecting the ridiculous extent of the power accorded to it over print media under the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) 1984. Indeed, such unintentional and rectifiable transgressions can easily be used as an excuse to revoke a paper’s publishing licence under this draconian law,” said CIJ Executive Officer Masjaliza Hamzah.
“CIJ calls for level-headedness from all parties who have grievances against the media, especially where any perceived harm is easily contained without state interference. The latest sorry episode shows yet again how the PPPA is easily used as a tool to keep print media under executive control and encourage press self-censorship, which is why it must therefore be abolished in the people’s interest.”
Online news site Malaysiakini reported that the Home Ministry summoned editors of The Star to explain the matter on 11 and 16 August, after which the daily published an apology on both occasions and suspended the supplement’s editor, Johnni Wong. The Home Minister, under the PPPA, is empowered to grant or revoke a given license for publications at any time, and has the sole discretion in deciding whether to renew a license once it lapses after a year.
” In our view, it is not enough to amend the PPPA. This outdated law must be repealed first before other steps can be put in place to encourage the practice of ethical journalism and the growth of media plurality in Malaysia,” said Mazjaliza on 16 August in response to the Prime Minister’s pronouncement, adding that any law review must be accompanied by efforts to regain public trust in media, especially print and state-funded media.
In order to do that, the government was urged to relinquish control of state-funded media — Bernama and RTM (public radio and television) — and make these publicly-funded media accountable to the public and serve public interest, rather than serve the government in power.
“CIJ also urges the Government to cease attempts to set up state-run media councils and instead, provide an environment that enables media and civil society organisations to set up independent self-regulatory media councils, which will promote media freedom and hold media accountable to journalistic ethics,” said Masjaliza.
SEAPA (http://www.seapabkk.org/) is the only regional organization with the specific mandate of promoting and protecting press freedom in Southeast Asia. It is composed of the Jakarta-based Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) and the Institute for Studies on the Free Flow of Information (ISAI); the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom andResponsibility (CMFR) and Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ); the Bangkok-based Thai Journalists Association (TJA); and the network’s Kuala Lumpur-based associate member, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ). SEAPA also has partners in Cambodia, East Timor, and exiled Burmese media, and undertakes projects and programs for press freedom throughout the region.
For inquiries, please contact us at: seapa [at] seapa [dot] org or call +662 243 5579.