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A loss of press freedom is a loss for all

May 17, 2017

Reporters Without Borders' 2017 Press Freedom Ranking puts Malaysia at 144, a major drop from its ranking of 92 in 2006.


World-Press-Freedom-DayBy Mangai Balasegaram

Bad news is part of a normal day’s work in the media, but the bad news that emerged earlier this month was singularly bad for journalists. The reports released to mark World Press Freedom Day on May 3 indicate that these are dark times indeed for journalists.

Harassment, hostilities, arrests and imprisonment have become all too familiar for the media.

We had the US President disparage the press as “enemies of the people”, while at home, we saw online news portals blocked, journalists detained and questioned, and the “alarming” use of the Sedition Act, as Amnesty International put it.

The award-winning cartoonist Zunar is facing a possible 43-year jail term after being charged several times for sedition.

Globally, press freedom has declined to its lowest point in 13 years, according to Freedom House, a US-based human rights organisation.

At least 259 journalists were in jail in 2016, reported the Committee to Protect Journalists – the highest number since it started keeping track in 1990.

Dozens of staff from an opposition newspaper in Turkey have been languishing in prison for months.

We are approaching a “tipping point” for press freedom, warned Reporters Without Borders, also known by its French acronym RSF.

“Media freedom has never been so threatened,” RSF noted in a report, adding the measure of media freedom constraints and violations has risen 14% in the last five years.

Countries considered to have a robust free press, such as the United States, were among those now weathering challenges previously ascribed to developing countries.

The recent US presidential campaign and the UK’s Brexit campaign were marked by “a highly toxic, anti-media discourse,” RSF said.

This “drove the world into a new era of post-truth, disinformation and fake news”.

In RSF’s 2017 Press Freedom Ranking, both these established democracies slipped two places, while topping the list were Scandinavian countries known for accountability and transparency, qualities linked to press freedom.

The US now ranks just ahead of Romania and Botswana in 43rd place.

Yet that ranking is leagues ahead of our own abysmal ranking – 144 out of 180 countries.

Our ranking is low even for the region, falling below Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar, which actually jumped a notch this year.

It’s also low by our own record – in 2006, our ranking was 92.

How did we get here? RSF has cited a number of legal challenges facing local media.

One is the Printing Presses and Publications Act, which allows the authorities to shut down media by revoking or denying annual operational licenses.

The Act casts a long, dark shadow over the mainstream media, the result of which is an unspoken self-censorship among many journalists.

It is safer, surely, not to rock the boat, but this leaves the boat moored close to the government.

A case in point – this article was first written, toned down and carefully worded, for the mainstream media.

Yet it did not get the clearance to see print.

It is ironic that an article on press freedom lost out to self-censorship.

Sensitivities can run high.

When the Chinese-language daily Nanyang Siang Pau published a satirical cartoon depicting a politician and the Parliament Speaker as monkeys recently, its editor-in-chief was summoned to the home ministry.

The newspaper received a warning and was told to suspend the staff involved.

In recent years, some media outlets have faced suspensions, such as The Edge and The Heat, while some online media platforms, such as Sarawak Report, have been blocked.

In February 2016, the government blocked access to The Malaysian Insider, resulting in financial losses that partly led to its closure the following month.

The reasons for the block, which coincided with a report on 1MDB, was never officially communicated, the portal’s former editor Jahabar Sadiq said.

The year before, Jahabar was also one of four Insider journalists arrested under the Sedition Act over the publication of another article.

Meanwhile, RSF has said the “biggest threat” to Malaysian journalists is the Sedition Act.

In 2015, at least 91 individuals were arrested, charged or investigated for sedition – almost five times as many as during the law’s first 50 years of existence, Amnesty International noted in a statement.

“Speaking out in Malaysia is becoming increasingly dangerous.

“The government has responded to challenges to its authority in the worst possible way, by tightening repression and targeting scores of perceived critics,” said Josef Benedict, Amnesty International’s deputy campaigns director for Southeast Asia.

“The Sedition Act has no place in a modern, rights-respecting society – it is a severely repressive law.”

Social media groups

The greater freedom enjoyed by the online media is also now under threat.

The Malaysia Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) recently released an advisory to administrators of social media groups, calling on them to monitor and control content.

This came under fire from the Malaysian chapter of the rights group Article 19, which said administrators were being forced to act as censors.

The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, Suhakam, was also critical.

Suhakam chairman Razali Ismail said in a statement that the foundation for every democratic society was freedom of opinion and expression, “indispensable conditions for the full development of a person”.

Razali also called for the media to continuously seek to improve reporting standards and promote human rights.

The call to improve professionalism as a bulwark against attacks on the media was echoed by Andrew Heslop, who is director of media freedom in the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.

“We must own our faults,” Heslop wrote in an editorial earlier this month.

He called to create the conditions that retain the best talent, and to ensure rigorous editorial standards that engender deep trust.

“A strong profession has more chance of fighting off the epidemic it faces if first its own house is in order,” he wrote.

Heslop noted pressure is usually placed on the media when “powerful interests have something to hide”.

He called for journalists to know their rights and legal limitations.

“Ultimately, media need to do more to convince public opinion that such targeting is an attack on common values.”

A loss of press freedom is a loss for all.

Mangai Balasegaram is an FMT reader.

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