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Better access to information

PETALING JAYA, 22 Jan 2009: The March 2008 general elections have increased prospects for greater freedom of information, with Pakatan Rakyat governments taking the lead.

Cover for the annual review by CIJ
“The Selangor and Penang state governments have made public announcements to introduce freedom of information (FOI) laws in their states within the year,” Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) said in its 2008 review of freedom of expression in the country.

The review, which was released today, also noted the move, though unsuccessful, by Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) Member of Parliament (MP) for Subang, R Sivarasa, to initiate a Private Member’s Bill in Parliament on FOI.

It also commended Pakatan Rakyat MPs for committing to the setting up of a parliamentary caucus on media freedom.

Another breakthrough in 2009 was the Works Ministry’s release of controversial toll concessionaire agreements to the public, CIJ said.

However, CIJ still expressed disappointed with the Barisan Nasional (BN)-led federal government.

“[T]he government in 2008 has neither relaxed its legal restriction on freedom of expression nor committed in any concrete terms for any such plan,” CIJ said.

“[T]he BN really has to change its course if it is sincere about winning public confidence,” CIJ executive director V Gayathry said.

Political Islam

CIJ also noted that political Islam and ethnic-based politics continue to define the landscape of freedom of expression.

For example, it noted that the police allowed Malay Muslim groups to demonstrate against freedom of religion, and in support of bumiputera quotas and the Internal Security Act.

But demonstrators who supported the opposition, or questioned the ruling coalition and its policies were dispersed or arrested.

“The active portrayal of a scenario of doom for the Malay majority, through linking their well-being with that of the ruling coalition, impeded the year’s progress towards more openness,” CIJ said.

Better coverage

CIJ also said that post-March 2008, the traditional print media, including those linked to the BN, have generally been fairer to the Pakatan Rakyat and government critics.

“For instance, with the notable exception of Umno’s Utusan Malaysia, several papers were critical of the government’s plan to enact a Race Relations Act and the blocking of blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin’s website,” CIJ said.

It said RTM’s invitation to Pakatan Rakyat politicians to appear on air was also a step in the right direction.

However, these improvements were sporadic, Gayathry said.

“Our monitoring shows that the mainstream media has very little room to operate to provide more balanced and accurate information, and the pressure is on the media bosses to spin content,” she said.

At the same time, she noted that government accreditation was only given to some news websites while critical bloggers continued to be targeted under existing laws.

CIJ also launched their Hands Off! Journos at Work badges in response to the harassment of working journalists.

“We find individuals and worse still, political leaders, harassing journalists. This is completely unacceptable,” said Gayathry.

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