LETTER | In less than a week, it will be the World Press Freedom Day and the theme for 2018 is “Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice and The Rule of Law” focusing on the importance of an enabling legal environment for press freedom while giving attention to the role of an independent judiciary in ensuring legal guarantees for press freedom and prosecution of crimes against journalists.
Besides that, it also addresses the media being a watchdog fostering transparency, accountability and rule of law, the role of the media in sustainable development, especially during elections and also explores legislative gaps with regard to freedom of expression and information online and the risks of regulating online speech.
We found that the aspects being addressed by this global theme matches what is going on in our country and also the situation faced by the media. We will be facing the 14th general election on May 9 and before this the BN government rushed through the Anti-Fake News Act 2018 with it being enforced on April 11.
Although the Najib government stressed many times that the Anti-Fake News Act does not limit press freedom, the act has not established a clear operating procedure in interpreting fake news, and it is too broad. This enables the government to easily limit freedom of the press and freedom of speech in the name of fighting fake news. Actually, such anti-fake news measures indirectly impose further limits on the media.
Being the fourth estate of the nation, the media should have been playing a watchdog role with the law guaranteeing press freedom. However, the BN government has put another restrictive legislation using the legislature to destroy the watchdog role of the media. Such excessive regulation and censorship pose a severe challenge towards media freedom.
At the same time, during and after the polls campaigning period, the Anti-Fake News Act might end up as a tool for the people in power to oppress the dissidents, including taking action against media that publishes news being “perceived” as being unfavourable to the BN government.
Recently, Parti Cinta Malaysia (PCM) deputy president Huan Cheng Guan accused Malaysiakini of twisting BN deputy president cum caretaker deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s “don’t come back to vote” remarks, and possibly violating the Anti-Fake News Act 2018 and therefore urging the police and the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) to take action.
On the other hand, interestingly, the Anti-Fake News Act is not under the MCMC but the Prime Minister’s Department. Does this mean that the Act is to facilitate the prime minister to take action against dissidents?
Other than that, Malaysia is currently ranked 145th in the World Press Freedom Index by the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) being in the “red zone” behind other Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia (124th) and the Philippines (133rd).
RSF is in the opinion that the present laws in Malaysia including the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, the Official Secrets Act 1972 and the Multimedia and Communication Act 1998 are threatening the media and journalists.
However, the BN government not only does not address these draconian laws oppressing the media and speech freedom by amending or repealing them but has further introduced the Anti-Fake News Act limiting media freedom. We believe that if such draconian laws continue to exist, the press freedom index rankings of Malaysia will drop further.
The Najib government has repeatedly stated that they will provide the media sufficient freedom to carry out their jobs but the so-called freedom is being limited by many draconian laws.
Through the World Press Freedom Day, we hope to remind the caretaker government as well as the government-in-waiting to respect their promises made towards press freedom and not to abuse their power and draconian laws to strangle media freedom. They must review the current laws to protect the independence of the media while promoting a conducive media environment.
The writer is executive director, Political Studies for Change (KPRU).
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.