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Media freedom in Malaysia is far from assured, open letter tells prime minister

Media freedom in Malaysia is far from assured, open letter tells prime minister

Published on Tuesday 15 May 2012. Updated on Wednesday 16 May 2012.
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Reporters Without Borders has written an open letter to Prime Minister Najib Razak urging him to guarantee press freedom in Malaysia, where the media are exposed to censorship and violence and where their independence is severely curtailed by the ruling coalition’s political meddling.

The letter calls in particular for the immediate reversal of the interior minister’s refusal to issue a print publication licence to the Malaysiakini news website, a decision that led the website’s lawyers to lodge an appeal before the supreme court on 11 May.

Like the media freedom violations in connection with coverage of protests by the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (BERSIH), this decision has highlighted the government’s determination to control news and information and its fear of the independent media that are developing in Malaysia.

Dear Prime Minister,

Reporters Without Borders, an international organization that defends freedom of information, would like to draw your attention to the increase in difficulties for the media in Malaysia and to the lack of freedom of information, as regards both access and dissemination, which pose a serious threat to the general elections that are due to be held in the coming months.

When you took office, you urged to the media to criticize you and you promised more freedom. At the same time, you lifted the temporary ban that had been imposed on two opposition newspapers, Suara Keadilan, the mouthpiece of the party Keadilan, and Harakah, the mouthpiece of the Islamic party PAS.

However, the hopes raised by these promising moves were short-lived. Malaysia’s ranking in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index fell in 2009 and 2010, and its improvement in 2011, which you made a point of mentioning on 19 March, was in fact due more to the sharp decline in the situation in a number of other countries rather than any improvement in yours.

We would like to express to you our concerns about the many persistent problems.

The very scant coverage in the main Malaysian media of the so-called “Bersih 3.0” protest on 28 April by the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (BERSIH) and the outrageous censorship of the BBC’s coverage of the protest highlighted the urgency of the need to allow independent media such as Malaysiakini to provide your fellow citizens with news coverage that is free of any partisan influence.

The groundless refusal by the home minister (interior minister) to grant Malaysiakini a licence to publish a print version not only discourages critical and independent media but also runs directly counter to article 8 of the Malaysian constitution, which guarantees equality before the law, and article 10, which guarantees freedom of expression.

The refusal is all the more disturbing as it came just a few days after the extremely limited coverage of the major “Bersih 3.0” demonstration again turned the spotlight on the Malaysian print media’s lack of independence, a problem repeatedly condemned by journalists, including those working for the main news outlets that are under the influence of your party, UMNO.

News websites and blogs have flourished in recent years as an alternative to the traditional, government-controlled media. By delivering quality journalism and tackling major subjects, the new media, and in particular, Malaysiakini, have earned themselves a great deal of credibility and are helping to provide the Malaysian public with news and information. Their development should be encouraged, not reined in.

You are also undoubtedly aware that the cartoonist Zulkiflee Anawar Ulhaque, better known as Zunar, is suing the police and your government for illegal arrest and detention, loss of art books and confiscation of 66 cartoon books in a police raid, as well as the loss of income resulting from the inability to sell these books. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for 28 May.

Reporters Without Borders’ recommendations

There will be repeated recourse to the judicial system during the coming days and weeks. Reporters Without Borders hopes that the courts will respond by doing their duty to protect the media and to guarantee fundamental rights including media freedom and freedom of information:

  • Malaysiakini must be granted a licence to publish a print version and future requests from other online media seeking to publish print versions must be examined in a fair manner. An editorial position or policy critical of the government must not be used against a media that is seeking a licence.
  • The home minister’s discretionary power to grant and renew media licences must be revised. The recent amendments to the 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Act were insufficient in many respects. A complete overhaul is needed to this law, which continues to allow the government to put pressure on media that it regards as overly critical.
  • The courts must recognize that the cartoonist Zunar has been the victim of physical, psychological, material and financial harassment. The unlawful censorship of his cartoons must stop.
  • Your government must also give concrete undertakings to respect media independence, ensure that no external influence hampers the work of the media, and prevent any recurrence of censorship of the kind recently seen on Astro TV.
  • We urge you to abandon the new Security Offences Act. Although this attempt to reform the Internal Security Act, dubbed the “white terror,” is admirable, it is not enough. The Security Offences Act would perpetuate authoritarian practices that run counter to the democratic transition and reforms your government claims to be engaged in.

Media freedom in Malaysia is far from assured. In the run-up to the general elections, we think it is vital that you should take a public position on these crucial problems affecting the future of freedom of information and expression in your country.

We thank you in advance for giving this matter your careful consideration.

Sincerely,

Olivier Basille Director general

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