(Source: un.org) THERE was some cheer for me on World Press Freedom Day this year. It was provided by a press release from the Selangor government.
To commemorate the annual celebration on 3 May, Selangor Menteri Besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim spelt out clearly what his government was doing to promote press freedom.
In early 2009, less than a year after the Pakatan Rakyat swept into power in the state, Selangor formed a taskforce on freedom of information (FOI) comprising state assemblypersons and civil society.
“The taskforce’s first project is to study the possibility of legislating a Freedom of Information Act. The state hopes that an act that promotes FOI in Selangor will be tabled and passed in the state legislative assembly [at the] end of this year,” Khalid promised.
Additionally, he said, the state government would be organising a public consultation themed Freedom of Information: A Right to Reclaim on 19 May to discuss the intended FOI Act with a cross-section of stakeholders.
“I sincerely hope that the public will make full use of this consultation as all discussions and feedback will be collated and duly considered when the Bill is tabled,” Khalid said.
Equally important, Khalid is taking steps to ensure that any FOI regulation can be operationalised. The state government, he said, would train civil servants, especially those dealing with the public, on FOI.
“This is to promote awareness among civil servants to be more responsible and to understand their role as trustees [of] public documents,” he said.
ZambryNow contrast that with the Barisan Nasional (BN) leadership, whether at the federal or state levels.
Most recently, it was the Perak administration, under the leadership of BN’s Datuk Seri Dr Zambry Abdul Kadir, which decided that only selected media outfits could cover the 7 May 2009 state assembly sitting.
No online media were on the list of 13 which were allowed to report on an event as important as a historic state assembly sitting in a state that is facing a constitutional crisis. Not only that, the 13 media identified were clearly either government-run or owned by companies aligned to the BN.
And yet, BN’s appointed Menteri Besar Zambry had no problems declaring: “I believe in freedom of the press.” In his defence, he said the earlier decision to limit the number of journalists was to ensure their comfort.
Not quite a Freudian slip, but Zambry’s incredible statement does reveal that comfort was definitely on his mind when the decision was made to limit the media’s access to an event of public importance. Question is, whose comfort was he thinking of?
See, serious journalists can and do endure all measure of discomfort when chasing a story. Covering a packed state assembly sitting is hardly uncomfortable compared to staking out politicians in the hot sun or in a thunderstorm, manoeuvring through floods or land slips, or covering an epidemic or deaths at the site of a disaster.
Perchance, Zambry was thinking of the BN’s comfort? And if so, what does it say about the BN that it would feel discomfort by having all media, including those it cannot control, cover the state assembly?
Indeed, if comfort due to the assembly’s available space was really the problem, how did Zambry so quickly resolve the matter such that all media and even bloggers were eventually invited to cover the sitting?
Zambry’s assurance that all media could cover the state assembly sitting in the name of “press freedom” was also lacklustre. Speaker V Sivakumar, from the DAP, had beaten Zambry by earlier assuring all media that they would be able to cover the Perak sitting.
In a game show, Zambry would have gained no points. In a real democracy, he should be shown out of political office for being dishonest. In Malaysia, who knows?
Where’s the commitment?
While PKR’s Khalid and DAP’s Sivakumar are demonstrating what it really means to respect press freedom, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has shown no inclination to even provide a road map towards a “vibrant, free and informed media“.
If nothing else, the new administration is demonstrating that talk really is cheap.
Ban Ki-moon (Pic by Marcello Casal
Jr; source: Wikimedia commons)Not only that, the likes of Zambry, and Information, Communications and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim, who has been making threatening remarks about bloggers and online commentators, demonstrate that there is little understanding among BN leaders about what press freedom entails.
Indeed, in his message for World Press Freedom Day, United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said he was concerned that some governments were suppressing internet access and the work of online journalists and others who use the new media.
“Not surprisingly, blogging has flourished in countries where restrictions on media are toughest,” he notes.
It doesn’t seem, though, that the BN government understands this about the changing media landscape in Malaysia. I would even wager that the BN has no intention of enabling an environment to promote media freedom. After all, a truly vibrant and independent media would make it difficult for any government to abuse power for as long as the BN has.
Hence, despite calls for a road map from civil society, it’s hardly surprising that there is a lack of commitment from the Najib administration about how exactly it will create an environment that promotes a “vibrant, free and informed media.”
Lim (Pic by roman888; source:
Wikimedia commons) There is no doubt that not everyone within the PR is totally clued in either. Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng continues to defend his decision to bar the New Straits Times, while Utusan Malaysia is routinely prevented from covering PR press conferences. Lim cites malicious and inaccurate reporting as justification.
Still, at least there are some PR leaders who are clued in. They, at least, are taking active steps to make sure press freedom isn’t just populist rhetoric by a new administration hoping to secure the people’s goodwill.
Jacqueline Ann Surin knows what it feels like to fear being shut down by government. Having worked in two newspapers previously, she understands the meaning of absolute power under the Printing Presses and Publications Act. The Act, which allows government to dictate what the press can and cannot write about, is still firmly in place despite the BN’s rhetoric.