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Regaining our Malaysian voice

(Pic by Yamamoto Ortiz /
MY New Year wish for all Malaysians is that we will regain our voice.

We face an uncertain 2010. But if we are to become politically stable and economically secure, it is now, more than ever, that we need to be able to be openly critical of outdated policies and draconian laws.

So what’s holding us back? Why do so many Malaysians have their ideas about what’s going wrong with the country, and yet so few dare to say it out in the open? When and how did Malaysians lose their collective voice?

A free press

I know someone who has been switching between The Star and New Straits Times every two years for the past 20 years. This is the average time it takes for him to get fed up with the content of one paper before switching to the other, only to switch back again two years afterwards. With the government-linked print media’s overtly pro-Barisan Nasional stance, reading the newspaper, especially during election time, feels more and more like reading a government newsletter, only with lots of advertisements.

So why isn’t our press more independent? Why has the print media abdicated its role of holding the government to account? The truth is, our print media is controlled by such a broad spectrum of laws that it is a wonder they are able to publish anything political at all.

Tightly controlled

Leading the pack of laws controlling the print media is the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 (PPPA), which requires all newspapers to obtain a permit from the home minister before publishing. Failure to do so is an imprisonable offence. Newspapers can also be issued show-cause letters at any time under the PPPA. The threat of being denied an annual permit and putting hundreds of jobs at risk is a powerful tool indeed in forcing self-censorship among the print media.

Lim Guan Eng (File pic)
Next, there is the Sedition Act 1948, which makes it an offence to publish anything that “excites disaffection” against the monarchy, or government, or administration of justice, or that questions the special privileges of Malay Malaysians. For example, blogger Syed Azidi Syed Aziz, better known as Sheih Kickdefella, was arrested for sedition in September 2008. In 1998, current Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng was imprisoned under this act because he criticised the way the government handled allegations of statutory rape made against former Malacca Chief Minister Tan Sri Rahim Tamby Chik.

There is also the Internal Security Act 1960, where anyone can be detained to prevent them from acting in any manner prejudicial to “national security”. In 2008, Sin Chew Daily news reporter Tan Hoon Cheng was ostensibly detained “for her own good” after writing a news story on offensive remarks by Umno member Datuk Ahmad Ismail.

Ahmad Ismail (Courtesy of Oriental Daily)
The Official Secrets Act 1972 allows government documents to be classified “secret” and any publication of such information is illegal. Former Parti Keadilan Rakyat Youth chief Mohamad Ezam Mohd Nor was sentenced to jail for two years under this act. His conviction, which was later overturned, was for reading out “secret” information on corruption investigations involving Rahim and Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz.

While all these laws exist, other laws that would ensure greater transparency are absent. For example, the lack of freedom of information legislation allows government ministers and departments the impunity to ignore journalists’ legitimate requests for information.

Media attacked

A combination of the repressive laws cited above was utilised in 1987 to detain politicians and activists without trial in the now infamous Operasi Lalang during Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s premiership. These repressive laws were also used at the same time to shut down The Star, Sin Chew Jit Poh and Watan.

Editors of newspapers are constantly subjected to Home Ministry “briefings”, where “guidelines” are issued on what should or should not be published. These are only “guidelines”, but considering they are issued by the same person who issues the publishing permits each year, breaching them would be risky business indeed.

To top it all off, most of the print media have been gradually bought over, directly or indirectly, by political parties. As if losing one’s liberty was an insufficient threat, political masters can also threaten editors and journalists with losing their livelihoods. And often when political regimes change, so do editorial regimes in some political party-owned newspapers.

Hishammuddin (Courtesy of theSun)
Online not spared

The online media has not been spared government efforts to control its content. Although there is no need for the online media to obtain permits under the PPPA, all of the other repressive controls can still be applied.

For example, Malaysiakini‘s offices were raided in 2003 under the Sedition Act. Most recently, they were investigated under the Communication and Multimedia Act 1998 for publishing two videos. The first was of the Shah Alam cow-head protest, and the second, of Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein holding a press conference with the protesters standing behind him.

Strategies for speaking up

How do we overcome all these controls and regain our right to speak?

Obviously, all the repressive laws that violate the spirit of the constitution in guaranteeing freedom of speech need to be abolished. And personally, I wish political parties were barred from owning shares in the media.

But these can only happen if Malaysians speak up for what they believe is right.

We can write to our elected representatives and hold them to account for the repressive laws that are still around. We can even write to the editors of newspapers and tell them how we feel. To make the process transparent and accountable, we can republish these letters on our Facebook accounts or on blogs, or alert our followers on Twitter.

(Pic by Nouk / Dreamstime)
Some might say this is futile — our politicians and editors will not listen. Of course, if someone were to rant and make personal insults at me all day long, I would tune out immediately. But if someone could point out where I’ve gone wrong, backed with facts and without getting personal, I would be compelled to at least listen with an open mind. So, perhaps this is how we can engage with editors and politicians and hold them accountable without reaching a stalemate.

If all else fails, we have to remember that newspapers are only as strong as their circulation figures. So, we can also speak with our ringgit. If a particular newspaper continues to report irresponsibly, we can seek out alternatives that are truthful, fair and balanced.

Newspapers are supposed to be a civic forum for all of us to get accurate and balanced information, and for our voices to be heard. When the press is unable to perform this function, perhaps we have to start performing it ourselves.

Ding Jo-Ann wishes The Nut Graph readers a Happy 2010 and hopes they will speak up all year long.

Read previous Holding Court columns

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