Malaysiakini Opinion

The democracy dividend: A free press

Dennis Ignatius  |  Published on  |  Modified on

COMMENT | Democracy brings with it its own dividends. One of them is press freedom.

Freed from the shackles of government control, the Malaysian press is already exploring the limits of its new found freedom to articulate news, views and opinions. Our dismal ranking – near the bottom of the list in the World Press Freedom Index (145 out of 180 countries) – will now improve dramatically. Perhaps we might even become a poster boy for press freedom.

I anticipate that with time we’ll once again have a noisy and assertive press. There are lots of enterprising and intrepid reporters out there who are just raring to do their job once again. We must release them to their professionalism and passion if we want to strengthen our democracy.

I’ve been writing as a columnist and commentator for almost 10 years now. I know what it’s like to be censored, to feel anxious about crossing some invisible line, to worry about whether I might run afoul of some foul law or upset some powerful person somewhere.

Journalists, columnists and commentators should never have to fear the state. But that’s over and done with; I feel freedom’s caress in a very real way now as I write.

We cannot afford to be complacent about the press ever again. A free press is fundamental to democracy, fundamental to keeping our government honest, and the people informed.

To that end, we must insist that our new government act quickly to rid our nation of every single repressive law. No journalist should ever have to worry about exposing wrongdoings, malfeasance or corruption no matter who is involved. No editor should ever have to worry about a call from the Ministry of Home Affairs. Both government and public officials need to operate in the full glare of public scrutiny.

As well, we should stop the childish behaviour of making police reports whenever someone says something unpleasant against the prime minister or other public figures, as a group in Kedah did recently (claiming that someone had said something offensive about Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad). Public figures don’t deserve special protection from criticism or insult. In any case, Mahathir himself won’t be losing any sleep over being called names; he’s been called worse before and look where he is now.

Television and the print media should also be free of government control or influence; it gives them too much power to impose their views on the nation. Political parties, too, should get out of the media business. Hopefully, the new government will act decisively to free the media from political control. We certainly don’t want to see the mainstream media now become unthinking and fawning echo chambers of the new government.

Coming back to life

The air of freedom that is already penetrating mainstream media is now forcing them to reinvent themselves. Suddenly, public broadcasting and the print media are coming back to life.  

One TV channel, for example, carried a banner encouraging their viewers to celebrate our democracy. Another long-repressed reporter who had for years considered Mahathir a dirty word suddenly found the courage to give him advice on democracy. Strong stuff by the standards of our hitherto moribund mainstream media but it’s a good beginning.

For the first time, I find myself watching the news on local TV instead of automatically switching to CNN, BBC or Al-Jazeera.

I once wrote for a major English daily but resigned in disgust after a few years and refused to buy any of the local newspapers. Like many Malaysians, I refused to support the ‘dummification’ of the media, refused to be party to lopsided, blatantly dishonest reporting.

Well, I bought my first copy of a local newspaper a few days ago and I confess the content and tone have improved. Perhaps I can now look forward to once again spending part of my day, teh tarik in hand, reading the local papers. 

Online news portals like Malaysiakini, Free Malaysia Today (FMT) and the now defunct Malaysian Insider have kept the flame of press freedom burning through the long dark years of oppressive government. So many of their journalists worked long hours with little pay and endured harassment and rejection because they were passionate about their profession.

Many of us will always be grateful to editors like Steven Gan, Nelson Fernandez and Jahabar Sadiq for their courage in publishing all our highly critical and near subversive articles about Umno-BN and the Najib administration when no one else would. They upheld freedom of expression and the right to criticise the government when both were abandoned by mainstream media. They and their staff ought to be hailed as heroes of our democracy.

In the new environment of press freedom, online media like Malaysiakini and FMT will now become mainstream. Perhaps it’s time for a print version of Malaysiakini or an FMT daily or even a KiniTV channel. One thing is sure: competition will result in better and more qualitative news coverage and lead to a flowering of investigative journalism. What a thrilling prospect! Politicians take heed.

Whatever it is, the sooner the media is revamped and given the freedom to do their duty without fear or favour, the safer our democracy will be.


DENNIS IGNATIUS is a former ambassador. He blogs here.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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