IN response to Prime Minister (PM) Datuk Seri Najib Razak‘s 6 April 2009 speech on encouraging a national dialogue through the media, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) asks for a more concrete set of commitments in realising the PM’s vision.
Najib Razak (Pic courtesy of theSun)To foster a transparent “national discourse” that leads to the building of democracy, the government must first and foremost be willing to let the public set the agenda of the dialogue through an unrestricted media. Any government attempt to define the parameters for what constitutes “fair” dialogue will not be reflective of the public’s needs.
The PM’s vision presupposes certain conditions which he has yet to publicly commit to. For one, the public must be empowered with access to information in order to participate in an informed and responsible debate. The existing control of information via the Official Secrets Act and a general culture of governmental secrecy do not inspire confidence for the new PM’s vision. The law places disproportionate power in the hands of the executive and bureaucrats, instead of in the public for the sake of accountability.
Secondly, licensing of the media continues to impede fearless and responsible reporting. This and political ownership of the media create a condition where the ruling government’s agenda can easily dominate newsrooms. As recent as March this year, Deputy Home Minister Chor Chee Heung acknowledged routine surveillance and action against the media by the ministry. Without the relaxation of such controls, newsrooms will still have to play a cat-and-mouse game about the spaces they have in Najib’s grand vision.
Thirdly, the public needs to be convinced that they can speak out without any backlash against them. The Sedition Act, which covers sedition and seditious tendencies broadly, as well as the Internal Security Act which allow for indefinite detention without trial, inculcate fear and discourage expression. Far from defining the rules of expression and encouraging self-regulation, the laws are a blanket ban that is easily subjected to government abuse.
CIJ calls for the repeal of the above laws as the first in the series of requirements to meet the vision set forth. In the midst of a general scepticism against the new administration, Najib must go beyond the rhetoric to demonstrate the sincerity of his “new way forward”.
8 April 2009