THANKS to Utusan Malaysia, discussions about press freedom in Malaysia have revived after a lull since the 8 March 2008 elections, when some vague commitments were made by the home ministry to review the licensing provision in the Printing Presses and Publications Act.
The Utusan affair, particularly with regard to the defamation suit filed by legislator Teresa Kok, has regenerated debates about the freedom and responsibility of the press. There are so-called advocates of press freedom who think Kok should not sue Utusan for defamation, deeming such an action as an infringement of press freedom.
Let’s get a few things straight. Press freedom is about the media being able to do its job as a watchdog of the powerful, without fear or favour. This means being able to report on abuses, corruption, governance, political issues, and other public-interest stories without facing the threats of government interference, criminal prosecution and other controls or censorship.
It’s also about ethical journalism — i.e. journalists upholding the highest standards of reporting.
How well does Utusan, an Umno-owned media organisation, fare with regard to these two standards?
The Centre for Independent Journalism has always maintained that while it is important to defend the media in the interest of freedom of expression, it is also the right of an aggrieved party to sue for civil defamation, especially when there are grounds to argue for inaccuracy and malicious intent, and where no adequate or satisfactory space was given for the right of reply.
In this case, we must also question the continuous attacks hurled against one legislator, especially through further publication of “creative” works that clearly hit out at Kok. Is she being targeted through the media articles, and if yes, why?
We think the best course of action for Utusan should have been to apologise after it has been proven wrong, and offer adequate space for a reply in its pages. Since the newspaper decided not to do this and did not think it should apologise, then it must defend itself in court.
At the end of the day, as long as a level playing field is nonexistent, individuals will be driven to lawsuits against the media to pursue redress for harmful reporting.
Civil society voiced their concern over the lawsuits by New Straits Times Press (Malaysia) Bhd against bloggers Jeff Ooi and Ahiruddin Attan since the two individuals did not have the same level of protection as their plaintiff then. Civil society has not turned its back on the campaign for press freedom; rather, it is strengthening the campaign by exposing unethical practices and racially charged content that should be criticised.
Admittedly, there are serious concerns with the standard of reporting in this country. However, it is not up to the state to use its instruments to penalise the media; rather, it should be left to the media to evaluate the impact of its content and reflect honestly on whose interests it serves.
Centre for Independent Journalism