More media freedom but same old ‘irresponsible’ coverage, says group

Reports based on race and religion still abound. (Bernama pic)

PETALING JAYA: A human rights group dedicated to freedom of speech and expression says the media is freer under the new Pakatan Harapan government but much needs to be done to encourage “responsible reporting”.

Article 19 Malaysia programme officer Nalini Elumalai said media groups were no longer fearful and restricted in doing their job, unlike before May 9 last year, adding that civil society groups had more coverage in the press now.

“But we cannot say yet that the media and media practitioners are completely free since the last general election. The media, in a way, still needs to make many changes in terms of reporting and (giving) fair coverage,” she said.

She singled out news reports on minority groups, such as the LGBT community and migrant workers. She said there was still a “biased and hateful” style of reporting, despite this being an era of a “new Malaysia”.

“Nothing much has changed in how the media portrays these groups to the vast majority of Malaysians who hold a stigma towards them,” she told FMT, adding that the media should aim at changing these perceptions.

Nalini also said it was difficult for the media to operate and be fully free unless legislation related to the press that was “used by the former government to restrict the media” was repealed as promised.

She cited the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 (PPPA), the Sedition Act 1948, the Official Secrets Act, and the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 as examples of laws that needed to go.

“Media freedom can be improved if the government gets rid of these laws and implements a Freedom of Information Act and an independent media council. Only then will the media work without fear or favour.”

Ownership has become more diverse

Centre for Independent Journalism director Sonia Randhawa agrees with Nalini.

She said there were a lot more “informal freedoms” for the mass media today as their ownership had become “more diverse”.

She was alluding to some media companies and news portals divesting ownership and changing hands after May 9 due to losses incurred. Most of them were previously owned by political parties affiliated to the former administration.

Although the government promised to uphold human rights and freedom of the press, Sonia said, “we’ve seen very little of that”, in terms of dismantling regulations and legislation governing the media.

“This gives the power, in terms of regulations, to the government. So, while there is informal freedom now, we need changes in the legislative framework for the media here.”

Questioning the delay in repealing the PPPA and the Sedition Act, she said legislation related to defamation and hate speech were already in the Penal Code, so there was no need for these two laws now.

“To say there needs to be studies before the PPPA is repealed is, truthfully, complete nonsense,” she added. “I can draft the bill to repeal the PPPA… You just need two sentences and it’s done.”

Under the PPPA, all printing presses must obtain a licence, which can be revoked or suspended for any period of time.

Sonia said most countries did not have laws that had “such a tight control” over the press.

She also expected the media to continue to spew out divisive content, often on race, since the country’s political climate had always been such – revolving around race and religion.

“We cannot expect the ingrained habit spanning decades to change overnight, and (for everyone in the press) to wake up in the morning as Malaysians, rather than seeing the world through race-tinted glasses.

“So, we need to talk about difficult issues like race, religion and the monarchy. Unfortunately, with the Sedition Act in place and investigations still under way in some cases, I don’t think this will be possible.”