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LETTER | CIJ concerned over ban on non-official media in Sabah

LETTER | The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) is concerned over the Election Commission's (EC) reported move to bar non-official media from entering all nomination centres yesterday for the Sabah state elections. 

According to media reports, only those from RTM, Bernama, the Information Department and the National Film Development Corporation (Finas) were allowed to enter the nomination centres. This was reportedly part of Covid-19 preventative measures by the EC.

CIJ notes with alarm that since the change in government in March, Covid-19 is increasingly being used as a reason to sideline journalists and media practitioners attached with non-state-owned agencies from covering important, public-interest events. 

For example, only "official media" were allowed to cover the Malacca and Perak state assembly sittings on May 11 and 12, respectively, because of Covid-19. In the Perak state assembly instance, this was even despite invitations being sent beforehand to all media to cover the sitting, and instructions to send one reporter and one photographer to abide by physical distancing standard operating procedures (SOPs).

This trend of restricting and allowing access to only government media agencies creates a situation that only one-sided news or perceptions will be available for the public’s consumption. As it stands, access to press conferences by certain government ministers providing Covid-19 related updates is limited to just a few “official media” as well, until today. 

CIJ was just as alarmed over an April 7 official media invitation to a press conference from the Prime Minister’s Office following the special ministerial meeting on the implementation of the movement control order (MCO), but which limited live coverage access to Bernama and RTM.

These scenarios are deeply troubling because the public has a right to know what transpired and be able to form their own opinion based on multiple sources of information, and any censorship and control of media platforms by the government will create an information vacuum. 

Besides that, moving to bar “unofficial media” from covering government events but still allowing for all official media to do so with physical distancing SOPs taken into account shows that the space for reporters to cover these proceedings safely and according to Covid-19 SOPs is indeed doable.

CIJ reiterates that any measures taken to tackle Covid-19 and which have the potential to restrict media freedom must be legal, necessary, proportionate and temporary, with the sole aim of mitigating the immediate public health crisis. 

In this regard, the government of the day must always work towards ensuring fair and equal access to all media outlets and platforms to all timely information related to the crisis and/or public importance such as state assembly sittings or election nominations.

We, therefore, urge the EC to reconsider their decision to bar non-official media from entering nomination centres, and to allow all media personnel and journalists to enter the voting tabulation centres when Sabahans go to the polls on Sept 26.

The writer is CIJ executive director.

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

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