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Media bias no excuse for Kedah gov't press ban

The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) is concerned to learn that certain media organisations were barred from entering the Kedah state assembly building to cover the third term meeting which began on Nov 14, 2010 and will go on for three days.

According to reports, the state government was unhappy with recent skewed coverage by the media outlets. Among those affected were State broadcaster RTM , and Media Prima's publications Berita Harian and New Straits Times . Muhamad Helmi Mohamad Khalid, the Kedah menteri besar's press secretary, has clarified that Malaysiakini was unknowingly left out from the vetted list.

The government - whether at state or federal level - should not prevent any media from covering what is essentially a public meeting by a public body. In this instance, the fact that the 2011 budget was being considered makes it all the more important for wide dissemination of the information through all media. By contrast, the recent Selangor assembly's budget presentation was tweeted using the menteri besar's account.

The Kedah government could have instituted counter-measures against skewed reports through its own communication channels if their right of reply or correction was ignored or not carried out adequately by the media concerned. Malicious reporting can also be challenged in court.

Barring reporters - a tactic that has been employed by both sides of the political divide - threatens freedom of the press. This ultimately affects the people's right to information on matters of public interest.

Given the constraints on Malaysian media set by the legal framework and political ownership and control, we understand that media bias may masquerade as critical coverage. However, steps taken to address these constraints should not inhibit media freedom as this is counter-productive.

We therefore urge the Kedah state government to lift any such ban on media coverage of public meetings.

Chuah Siew Eng is the programme officer for CIJ, a non-profit organisation for democratic, just and free society, that advocates a free media and the freedom to express, seek and impart information.