6 May 2004
By Claudia Theophilus
A former deputy prime minister today said there was a need to take a “fresh look” at the “formal restrictions” to press freedom in this country.
Referring to existing laws, and rules and regulations that govern the print and broadcast media industry here, Musa Hitam said the situation was different now.
Preferring the word “fresh look” in place of review, he said whatever changes to be made to the laws must be in line with the changing times.
“Malaysians, particularly the huge middle-class, are more educated and exposed to current affairs and developments in other parts of the world,” he told reporters at the sidelines of a forum in Kuala Lumpur.
Musa believed that Malaysians today would not get emotional over racial issues as compared to a few decades ago.
“The changes (to the related press laws) should be tailored to the present mindset of the people,” he said.
He earlier delivered a keynote address at a forum to commemorate World Press Freedom Day organised by the Asian Institute of Development Communication together with the Embassy of Finland, United Nations, the Malaysian Press Institute and the National Press Club.
No absolute freedom
Musa, a former chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, also believed that there was no absolute freedom.
“There are only formal and informal restrictions. The latter are more of self-censorship that pander to political and corporate interests, and whatever interests that individual journalists may have.”
He said the government’s success in creating a burgeoning middle-class led to greater awareness of social and economic rights.
“As people become more educated and economically stable, they will start demanding for more rights and greater freedom, as can be seen in developed countries.
“This means the government should focus on enhancing social and economic rights in order to create a thinking society.”
Only then, said Musa, people will begin demanding for greater freedom of the press and others.
“The government will have no choice but to go with the flow because the middle-class, though less vocal in public, will use their voting power to make a point,” he said, referring to the 1999 general election when the Barisan Nasional ruling coalition lost a state and a number of seats due to the crisis which followed the sacking of former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim.
The half-day forum was attended by several embassy officials, eminent legal personalities and senior media practitioners.
In his welcoming address, Dr Richard Leete, the resident representative for United Nations Development Programme Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, said apart from the challenges facing the media, its role in conflict-prevention should also be discussed.
“True peace cannot be realised unless the problems of widespread poverty and inequity between and within countries are addressed,” he said.
“And unless they are addressed, the risk of serious conflict remains high,” he added.
Leete stressed on the importance of the media highlighting issues of gender equality, HIV/Aids and extreme poverty in developing countries as they are inextricably linked to global peace and security.
In his paper entitled ‘Fighting for a Global Press Freedom’, Prof Li Xiguang, the dean of Tsinghua University’s school of journalism and communications in Beijing, shared his experiences with Chinese TV coverage of the Iraq war.
He criticised the media coverage of the war and how global media tycoons wormed themselves into China through 24-hour satellite broadcast.
Dismissing the news reports as nothing more than US government propaganda, he blamed media tycoons such as Rupert Murdoch for dishing out deceptive information instead of reporting both the good and bad news.
Citing the coverage by CNN and Fox News, Li said the US government’s move to embed journalists in order to feed only propaganda material from the White House and the Pentagon was proof of the American-style of press freedom.
He said global press freedom does not mean according to the American press or according to the White House.
“If global press freedom means that the international audience hears only one voice, sees pictures only from one perspective and gets information only from one source, what does dictatorship mean?” he concluded, to loud applause from the floor.