Drastic drop in PFI - what went wrong?

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As a regular reader of the newspapers, I am, like thousands of other Malaysians, very disappointed that our ranking in the Press Freedom Index (PFI) 2013 has dropped by 23 places to 145 out of 179 countries.

I am aware that much of our news is either self-censored or restrained because of official pressure. But I have to confess that I did not realise that Malaysia's purported press freedom is as bad as it turns out to be, judging from the international Press Freedom Index.

So I have no doubt that more Malaysians will now, more than ever, sincerely ask: "What went wrong with the government's management of the Malaysian press and mass media?"

Is this apparent suppression or stifling of the news - or worse still, some distortion of the truth or massaging of the facts - undertaken by some over-enthusiastic officials and Little Napoleons, or is it emanating from the highest levels of the government itself? This critical question has to be answered soon in the public interest.

The Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders is credible internationally, but admittedly, it has its shortcomings. Hence, the Press Freedom Index like most indices is not without discrepancies and criticism. For instance, it is strange that Brunei is ranked higher than the Philippines and Indonesia. Is it because small Brunei has little news to monitor?

However, this does not mean that we should simply belittle or dismiss the general conclusions of the index. Even the well-respected Centre of Independent Journalism (CIJ) and its executive director, Masjaliza Hamzah, have openly claimed that "last year saw the biggest violation on journalists' freedom to report news and information during the Bersih 3.0 rally, when more than 12 journalists were reportedly harassed, threatened, assaulted and arrested... "

So this could be the main reason that Malaysia's freedom has suffered so much! What a pity that despite some progressive and laudable initiatives taken recently by Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak to amend the Printing Press and Publications Act, the press freedom in Malaysia has received such a bashful bashing. Can the government take urgent steps now to improve the index?

Our own professional National Union of Journalists (NUJ) President Chin Sung Chew has publicly stated that the poor press freedom ranking reflects badly on Malaysia. He also sounded grave concern over the drop in the Press Index, and has advised the government to take the sad decline in the Press Index very seriously.

Thus, there is substantial consensus that our press image has been badly tarnished, not only in the eyes of Malaysians, but also amongst the foreign press, businessmen, and domestic and foreign investors. How reliably will they now view our own socio-economic statistics, policies and performances?

GE13 around the corner

Now that the 13th general election is to held in the very near future or even the next few weeks, all attention - at home and abroad - will be focused on the degree of our professed press freedom. In fact, the perception of the quality and also the outcome of the 13th general election can depend largely on the extent to which the government will promote and ensure greater press freedom as soon as possible before the election.

All political parties should be given much more, and better access to the mass media to air, debate, and discuss their views widely and deeply. Only then can we redeem our country's poor ranking and performance in press freedom. We all need to be satisfied and convinced that we are indeed a maturing democracy. Will we succeed?

More importantly, unless we significantly improve in our press freedom immediately by reducing any authoritarianism in the management of the media, the election results, however well conducted, will always be held in some doubt.

We, as responsible Malaysians, will want to be confident and proud of our election results. We all have to play our role as observers of press freedom in all events leading up to and on the Election Day itself.

This is necessary to ensure fair press coverage of the election process to ensure free, clean and transparent elections, so that there is full public accountability and national integrity. We need to help the Election Commission achieve free and fair elections.

Hence I would, on behalf of millions of caring Malaysians, appeal to the government to give the highest priority to raise our standards of press freedom urgently, and well before the impending GE13. This public appeal is made in the best interests of our national self-respect ( maruah ) and long-term progress, unity and sustainability.

Finally, I hope and trust ( nambikai ) that our government will be responsive to our sincere call for more freedom of the press as a top priority to uphold the principles of "1Malaysia".

RAMON NAVARATNAM is chairperson of the Asli Centre of Public Policy Studies (CPPS).

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