WHILE the 12th general election had opened up some democratic space in the realms of media and freedom of expression, we are now watching it quickly disappear. The government’s censorship of the name of a certain murdered Mongolian looks absurd, as does the seizure of DVDs produced by the opposition.
The fact that politicians choose to undermine media freedom and public expression reveals the negligible standing of democratic freedom in this country.
As long as the government legislates control of the media and of public expression, the situation will never change. At any time, institutions that are supposed to function as public watchdogs can instead be subverted to the will of the federal executive. The public and the newsroom are beholden to the powers that be. In turn, the executive gets used to wielding its power in an authoritarian manner, becomes accustomed to targeting the media when their feelings of political insecurity are stoked.
The barring of online media from the Umno general assembly and the suspension of two opposition party papers once again illustrate the executive’s mindset. Their agenda of control is barely hidden, even as the executive uses the cover of the laws to justify the papers’ suspension. It is also not hard to see that by stopping the online media from covering the Umno assembly, the government is constraining the public’s access to information to mainstream print media and state-controlled agencies.
The Umno secretary-general Datuk Seri Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor’s complaint about ethical standards of the online media is hardly convincing when the independence of the national media is known to be vulnerable to laws and political ownership.
Lim Guan EngMedia ethics and professionalism are also the purported reasons why the Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng is considering banning a national daily, the New Straits Times (NST), from official state functions. Lim claimed that the paper has been unfairly and falsely reporting information about his administration, and that they are refusing to print letters sent by his office attempting to clarify the situation.
Despite his purported grievances, the Centre for Independent Journalism believes that banning any media outlet is a restriction on press freedom and the plurality of views. Striking out at the media betrays a controlling mindset, and sparks the worrying question of whether Lim’s Pakatan Rakyat might just be as intolerant of scrutiny and criticism as the ruling Federal government.
The press should be serving the public, and therefore, the burden is on the media to report as ethically as possible. The media must address the issues of professionalism and ethics that have raged stronger than ever after the conclusion of 12th general election. Has the NST considered Guan Eng’s complaint? Why does Malay daily Utusan Malaysia prefer to get embroiled in legal suits with Selangor state exco Teresa Kok, rather than explain their editorial decision to publish the allegation that lead to Kok’s detention under ISA?
Where the national media continue to shrug off objections about their ethical standards and point to their fear of the laws, the public will naturally look upon the online media as the better, more accurate, and more informative alternative. Their choice — their right — should not be stopped.
Attempts to control the media and curb freedom of expression are undemocratic and politically risky. The structure of media control as it exists now is responsible for entrenching authoritarian attitudes and stifling ethical standards in newsroom. It is therefore imperative that the new prime minister consider these issues carefully when he begins to institute his promised “reforms.”
Yip Wai Fong
Communication and Publications Officer
Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ)