#WPFD2017 Media groups and journalists fight back against volatile press freedom, free expression situation

Gerakan Media Merdeka (Geramm)

Introduction

Since late last year, speculations have been rife over possibilities that Malaysia’s ruling Barisan Nasional federal coalition, led by Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, would be calling for general elections. In Malaysia, the general election can be called anytime between three years and five years since the last polls, and in this case, the 13th general election was held on 5 May 2013. In terms of the media, this general uncertainty has had an indirect impact on overall operations and freedom. This is partly due to the fact that a majority of the media ownership can be linked openly or discreetly to various political parties or individuals close to politicians.

Speculations over snap polls would therefore indirectly force the dailies to propagate more of the government’s agenda, often resorting to blatant attacks on opposition parties and its leaders. This in turn impacted its credibility in the public’s eye.

Malay-daily Utusan Malaysia and English-daily The New Straits Times, both linked to ruling party United Malays National Organisation (Umno), were subjected to numerous lawsuits filed by opposition leaders aggrieved by their allegedly defamatory reports. In October last year, jailed former opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was awarded RM200,000 (USD 46,000) in damages by Malaysia’s highest court, after Utusan Malaysia lost its final appeal.1 Anwar had sued Utusan over two articles the Malay-daily had published with regards to his comments in an interview with UK’s BBC, on homosexual laws.

Speculations of a looming general election had also impacted funds for various news operations. News portal The Rakyat Post ended its operations on February 29 due to funding issues, despite anecdotal evidence, which suggested links to prominent politicians close to the government administration.2 Personal politicking in this case may have victimised the staff, many of whom were let go without adequate notice and compensation. The willy-nilly setting up and closing down of news portals just for politically linked agenda is a serious threat to proper journalistic practice, the right of the public to be properly informed as well as to the welfare of journalists and staff who are only doing their jobs.

Blocking and shutdown of online portals

In January last year, blogging platform Medium confirmed that it was blocked by some Malaysian internet service providers (ISPs), including stated-owned Telekom Malaysia, after it refused to give in a request to remove an article by London-based whistle blower site Sarawak Report.3 At the time, Medium had said that Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) claimed the article was “false, unsubstantiated, and misleading” and in violation of Malaysian law. There were also reports of online blogs critical of the prime minister being blocked.

This was on top of investigations being carried out under the existing MCMC Act provisions, specifically one that touches on materials allegedly posted on social media such as Facebook or Twitter “with the intention to hurt other people’s feelings”.  As an example, on February 18 last year, online portal Malaysiakini reported that a woman was charged at the Sepang Sessions Court with making a Facebook posting that hurt the feelings of Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak over the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA).4 This signifies a trend where personal posts are not spared from the authorities radar and often on issues that only touches on particular individuals.

In February 25 last year, it was also discovered that online portal The Malaysian Insider (TMI) was inaccessible from the state owned Internet providers. The MCMC at the time said the reason for them doing so (without prior notice) is that TMI is being a “threat to national security” with its content that was allegedly in violation of Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) 1998.

The Internet regulator also warned other news portals not to publish unverified articles as it could cause confusion and create an unwarranted situation. The statement however did not say how TMI had flouted Section 233. According to the MCMC website, Section 233 of the CMA is for improper use of network facilities or network services. The Malaysian Insider eventually ceased operations in March last year.

Proposed amendments to communication- and media-related laws

Since late 2015, the government of Malaysia has raised the need to strengthen existing provisions under the CMA. It was only on May 16 last year, however, that the proposed amendments were first presented in the Malaysian parliament.

Among the amendments proposed include mandatory registration of political bloggers and online news portals, and an increase in penalties for offences under the Act. The government had also recommended that broader powers be accorded for the Internet regulatory body – the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) – to take down content without proper oversight. More worrying was the fact that the amendments were proposed during a time when the Malaysian government is under increased international scrutiny from issues surrounding state-investor 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

Increased online enforcement

The proposed amendments to the CMA have yet to be tabled in parliament, more than a year since it was first mooted, but changes can already be seen in the operations of certain media outlets. In particular, based on anecdotal evidence, Malaysiakini have exercised more vigilance in monitoring comments posted by its subscribers on stories deemed to be potentially sensitive.

The proposal for news portals and blogs to be registered with the government is also a shadow that looms over daily operations of online media outlets. Having a “big brother” like authority would subject online portals to regulations that had shackled its print and broadcast counterparts.

The Official Secrets Act 1972 amendment threat

The other area of concerns with regards to the law is a reported proposal by Attorney-General (A-G) Tan Sri Apandi Ali to strengthen the archaic Official Secrets Act (OSA) 1972, more so when he seems to be specifically targeting journalists. “We may charge the journalist who refuse to reveal the sources. I am not joking. If I have 90% of evidence, I will charge journalist, editor, assistant editor and editor-in-chief. I am serious, not kidding. We have too many leakage of secrets in Malaysia,” said Apandi in an interview with Chinese language Sin Chew Daily and quoted by Malaysiakini.5

The top prosecutor reportedly insisted that OSA could be used against journalists who protect their sources, as the media personnel will then be considered as collaborating with a potential saboteur. He also related that the A-G’s Chambers is looking to amend OSA laws to include life imprisonment and 10 strokes of the rotan (rattan) as punishments.

Loss of resources from investigations

The online media outlets in Malaysia are largely operating on very limited resources and any loss of assets would severely impact its ability to perform its duties to the public. For example, any investigations by the police on a published report would often see the journalist being called up to have their statements recorded, sometimes repeatedly over a long period of time. This could create a culture of fear. At the very least, the journalist in question would have to sacrifice their time which could have been used to work on a story.

As part of an investigation, the authorities could also demand a journalist to hand over their equipment – mobile phones, laptops or recording devices. In Malaysia, there are still many media outlets that could not afford to provide their journalists with company equipment, at a risk of personal loss.

The role of judiciary

On the role of the judiciary, news reports of judgments related to defamation lawsuits issued over the past year appear to suggest a degree of independence. In contrary, concerns have been raised on charges under the CMA, with allegations of such actions being unwarranted and prejudicial.

In December last year, two Umno-linked media groups and three others reportedly won their appeals against Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, who had sued them for labelling him a “Singapore spy.”6 A three-man Court of Appeal bench, chaired by Rohana Yusuf, said the court was bound by an earlier ruling that a public official could not sue anyone, including the media, for defamation. In March, the Court of Appeal led by the same panel struck out Pahang Menteri Besar Adnan Yaakob’s suit against Utusan Melayu (M) Berhad as he had filed the case in his official capacity.

On May 23, Kuala Lumpur High Court judge Rosnaini Saub ruled that Malaysiakini had won in a defamation suit filed by gold mine company Raub Australian Gold Mining (RAGM).7 She said the defendants had succeeded in their defence of qualified privilege – the Reynolds privilege, which is responsible journalism and reportage. “Malice was also not proven. On these grounds, the plaintiff’s claim against the defendants ought to be dismissed,” she stated in her 37-page judgment. She also ordered RAGM to pay costs of RM50,000 (USD 11,500) to the defendants.

Under the CMA, critics however raised concerns over the charge against online broadcaster KiniTV and Malaysiakini editor-in-chief Steven Gan for publishing allegedly hurtful comments by a politician.

It was noted that the charge also comes after KiniTV had agreed to remove the allegedly offensive word from the video, signaling a highly repressive move by authorities involved.

The charges were framed under Section 233(1)(a) and Section 244(1) of the CMA which respectively carries a maximum RM50,000 (USD 11,500) fine or up to one year imprisonment on conviction.

Interference by the government and non-state actors

Indirect or direct interference by state and non-state actors is also a prominent issue in the past year. In March this year, Malaysia’s lower House or Dewan Rakyat Speaker Tan Sri Pandikar Amin Mulia ruled that media personnel are banned from purportedly accosting the lawmakers in parliament, outside of a dedicated press conference area.

Most journalists saw the move as restricting their ability to carry out responsible, timely and accurate reporting.

To compound matters, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister’s aide who met a group of Parliament reporters admits that the ruling is to avoid minister “being misquoted” as they are unprepared to meet the media.8

Safety and protection of journalists and media workers

Malaysia is a relatively safe country for journalists but threats against journalists still persisted especially by politicians.

In February this year, veteran Opposition Parliamentarian Lim Kit Siang lost his cool and lambasted a reporter from private broadcaster TV3 in public without allowing the reporter a chance to defend himself.

Subsequently, Opposition supporters used social media to attack the journalists and others who questioned Lim’s action.

The situation clearly illustrated a worrying trend of prejudicial actions by politicians against individual journalists, based on a bias against their media organisations.

Aside from verbal threats, in January, two freelance journalists Jules Ong and Chi Too, who were engaged by Singapore broadcaster Channel News Asia to film a story on deforestation, were arrested in an early morning operation led by the Kelantan Forestry Department.

Chi Too was allegedly threatened by Kelantan Forestry Department officers, warning him not to be like “Bruno Manser” – a renowned activist – and that the two journalists would be tailed for a week.

The police released both of them on the same day without pressing charges.

In November 2016, a ruling party division chief and Red Shirts movement leader Datuk Seri Jamal Yunos led two protests in front of Malaysiakini’s office, calling for its closure.9

Jamal, who gain notoriety for his antics and opposing the Bersih electoral reform movement, accused Malaysiakini of receiving funding from the Open Society Foundations (OSF) founded by American hedge fund billionaire George Soros.

Self-regulation and self-censorship

Again, the lack of press freedom in Malaysia forced most media organisations to practice self-censorship or risk warning letters and/or actions from the government.

In April last year, a former group editor at Malaysia’s New Straits Times (NST) had resigned, complaining about the inability of a national newspaper to give coverage about the 1MDB scandal.

Mustapha Kamil, who has been with the newspaper for 26 years, said that he had to leave after struggling with his conscience and the journalists’ code to seek the truth.

“I had weighed the situation for as long as I could but when an American newspaper, headquartered somewhere in Lower Manhattan in New York, wrote a story that got nominated for the coveted Pulitzer Prize, about an issue that happened right under my nose, I began to seriously search my conscience and asked myself why was I in journalism in the first place,” he explained in his Facebook account in May last year.

Other than support from social media, no mainstream news company had been known to formally address the matter.

The union to its credit raised the issue on the matter especially after NST, The Star, Sinar Harian, Utusan Malaysia, Malay Mail Berita Harian “blacks out” reportage of the United States of America’s (USA) Department of Justice announcement on 1MDB investigations in July last year.10

Threat of sexual harassments

While there have been no significant trends observed to demonstrate stronger role played by women in the media, there were notable cases of harassments while on duty.

Among others, the Red Shirts rally linked to the ruling party was marred by reports of at least two female reporters who were allegedly harassed by the protesters.11 The pre-rally roadshows organised by the same group similarly saw racist slurs being directed towards at least one photographer from Malaysiakini.

Based on anecdotal evidence, there were also cases of possible personal attacks aimed towards an Opposition politician, but resulted in a female journalist being subjected to scrutiny for being photographed with the said politician.

The resistance from media practitioners

Over the past year, independent media pressure groups and supporters of free press in Malaysia have rallied together against the various threats faced. As an example, the proposed amendments to the CMA were met with outcry from critics who raised concerns over what it deemed to be as an attack on freedom of expression online. In February last year, several civil society groups came together to launch the Net Merdeka campaign to advocate for internet rights and freedom of expression in Malaysia.

Among others, it called on the government to halt tabling of the amendments and engage broad civil society consultation on any proposed amendment to the CMA, and any further proposals related to regulation of the internet that impacts on the people’s rights and freedoms.

The National Union of Journalists Malaysia (NUJM), representing the interests of some 1,400 journalists from across major newspapers, was also among the first to speak out against the proposal. “NUJM considers it best to bring up the right to reporting and freedom of press since online news now play a bigger role in informing the public. Clamping down on online reporting will not only maim freedom of information but also removes the democratic rights of the people,” said NUJM in a statement on May 25 last year. The NUJM at the time also said that the proposed amendments have also yet to be publicly shared with civil society organisations including human rights bodies, journalistic organisations, and the Malaysian Bar human rights committee.

Gerakan Media Merdeka (Geramm), together with the Institute of Journalists Malaysia (IoJ) and the Foreign Correspondents Club of Malaysia (FCCM) also issued a joint statement to condemn the arrest and alleged poor treatment of two journalists by Kelantan state authorities, during a crackdown on a blockade set up by the Orang Asli community on January 24 this year.

Forecast and outlook

While the climate for freedom of press and expression remains volatile, a greater solidarity among its practitioners and supporters can serve as a force of resistance, both against state and non-state actors. This can be viewed as a positive development for the overall media industry.

Despite promises by the prime minister that freedom of expression is thriving in Malaysia, a lack of commitment by the authorities would require the media practitioners to defend their own profession. Much emphasis has also been placed by the government against alleged purveyors of fake news, including media outlets critical of its administration.

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Gerakan Media Merdeka (Geramm) is a loose coalition of journalists, media representatives and activists who are fighting for freedom of the press and its practitioners.

Geramm was formed on 20 December 2013, to protest against suspension of news weekly The Heat. Since then, it has been in solidarity with other local media in Malaysia as well as actively seeking out new regional partners.

Visit Geramm’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/GerakanMediaMarah and tweet us at @MediaGeramm.

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