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Barring the media

“If we are truly to build a democracy that is responsive to the needs of all the people, we need a media – both old and new – that is empowered to responsibly report what they see, without fear of consequence, and to hold governments and public officials accountable for the results they achieve or do not achieve.”

PRIME Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, in a speech delivered at the Malaysian Press Institute’s Press Night, three days after taking office. He said that “responsible reporting” did not mean taking the government’s side, but “looking more sceptically and critically at some of the claims from all sides.” (Source: Malam Wartawan 2009: Policy, Politics, and the Media – A New Way Forward, www.pmo.gov.my, 6 April 2009)

One of Najib’s first actions as prime minister was to lift the suspensions of opposition party organs Suara Keadilan and Harakah.

“When I asked him why Merdeka Review was being barred, he told me it was an order from the prime minister’s office. He said he wasn’t sure why we were being barred, and there was no black-and-white instruction.”

Merdeka Review journalist Wong Shu Qi, after she was barred, along with photographer Saw Siow Feng, from entering the prime minister’s department to report on the new cabinet line-up. (Source: Online news site barred from PM’s office, The Nut Graph, 9 April 2009)

“We didn’t have problems going in to report before, even when we hadn’t yet gotten our Information Department media accreditation tags.”

Merdeka Review editor-in-chief Chang Teck Peng, who said it was the first time the Chinese-language news website was ever barred from the prime minister’s department. (Source: Online news site barred from PM’s office, The Nut Graph, 9 April 2009)

This singling-out of Merdeka Review is arguably more problematic for the Malaysian media than the barely enforced ban of six online news outfits from the 59th Umno general assembly, or the Penang state government’s barring of the New Straits Times from state functions. In the other two examples, official reasons were given, and “dialogue” — a word that Najib, in his speech, says seven times — could occur.

“This ban by the prime minister’s office, as well as the Pakatan Rakyat Penang government’s earlier ban of the English daily New Straits Times from its official functions, demonstrates further that both are willing only to pay lip service to the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and information.”

A joint statement by the Writer’s Alliance for Media Independence (Wami) and Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ). It urged both the Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat coalitions to “show their commitment for media freedom.” (Source: CIJ, WAMI: Najib’s credibility in media freedom shattered, www.cijmalaysia.org, 10 April 2009)

In light of the ban, the statement also warned that Najib’s move in centralising the governance of broadcast and internet media under the Ministry of Information, Communication, Arts and Literature “might simply mean more news censorship and tighter control for those media.”

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