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Civil rights groups today expressed concern that the proposed media council may further erode the already-limited space for free speech and freedom of expression in the country.

Suaram executive director Cynthia Gabriel said the initiative could either improve the current media practices or worsen the situation.

"It could go either way — improve the standards of journalism, or further reduce the ever-shrinking space for free speech," she said.

"The role of the council needs to be clearly identified but if it's going to be merely a regulatory body, then journalists will be tied down."

Although a code of conduct is provided for journalists, she expressed worry that core issues of free speech and freedom of opinion may not be adequately addressed.

Civil society input

"The proposal for the council does not address the abuse of the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) 1984. It would only serve as another layer of control over the media," Gabriel told malaysiakini .

Malaysian journalists in the print, broadcast and online media, as well as domestic news agencies, will be governed by a new and detailed code of professional conduct as and when a media council is established under a new law.

The Malaysian Press Institute (MPI) revealed details of the code in a bulky document on the draft Media Council Act, listing provisions on the power, structure and operations of a statutory body to regulate the media.

Gabriel felt that such a body would not help promote more open views and critical writing or expression.

"While we welcome the code of practice which may help improve the standards of journalism in the country, it is more important for civil society, besides media organisations, to have a say in the final formulation of the code as well," she said.

Clause for independence

National Human Rights Society (Hakam) secretary-general Elizabeth Wong was also sceptical of the proposal and advised journalists in particular to exercise "extreme caution" in evaluating it.

"It seems to be promoting more regulation over the media when what is needed is self-regulation and independence of the media, especially from political control.

"If one does not expect liberty and freedom of expression to be codified (legislated), then in the same vein one should not codify press freedom either," she said.

The draft will be tabled in Parliament as a Private Member's Bill once the details have been worked out.

Wong believes the proposed council will not arrest the "very dismal situation for media practitioners or open greater space for press freedom".

She is not convinced that it will "introduce fair and non-partisan reporting because the proposal does not state, at the very least, a review of the PPPA".

The draft proposal also states that the council is partly to be funded by Parliament, with "other sources" to provide the remaining funds.

She said in any other country, funds whether from Parliament or private sources would not affect the independence of anybody "but the realities of Malaysia have proven otherwise".

"Maybe a clause should be inserted (in the proposal) clearly stating that the council is totally independent from the government or any other body," she added.

Not an issue

Universiti Teknologi Mara journalism lecturer Prof Hamdan Adnan said the source of funding would not be an issue because Parliament (which draws from a consolidated fund) also has representatives of both the government and opposition parties.

Hamdan, who is also a commissioner with the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam), said the most important thing is for the interests of all the media to be upheld and protected.

"We should give the statutory model a try, otherwise funding may be a major problem later."

Meanwhile, co-author of the draft proposal Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia journalism lecturer Dr Mohd Safar Hasim explained that "other sources" of funding referred to industry contributions.

"We wanted to show the money is not associated with the government and also to avoid giving the impression that the government is the one setting up or controlling the council."

On the absence of any enforcement powers, Mohd Safar said it will be left to the forthcoming discussion between MPI, editors and journalists to review. If the parties feel that the council needs such powers, then the decision would be made accordingly.

"But the intention is to give the council some statutory authority. Furthermore, attempts to form a voluntary mechanism since 1973 by local journalists failed because the industry rejected these," he said.

"Australia is among the very few countries where a voluntary media council has actually worked due to the absence of restrictive laws. In our case, we have been regulated for so long, so the switch may raise problems of coping with the new mechanism."

Under the proposal, the council will comprises a chairperson and 24 members appointed by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong. The chairperson will be nominated by a selection committee comprising Dewak Rakyat speaker, senate president, chief justice of the Federal Court and three editors nominated by MPI.

Sixteen members will be nominated from among media practitioners, four by the Malaysian Universities Council of Vice-Chancellors, and one each by the Bar Council and the Malaysian Medical Council. Four more places will be rotated among non-governmental organisations.