COMMENT | As is the case everywhere in the world, the term "press freedom" has been defined and butchered many times since the invention of journalism.
Every country worth its mettle has always found a way to curtail or redefine the so-called freedom of the press by legislation, rules and straight-up interference from the powers that be, whether it's political or religious, or in Malaysia's case, both.
For the sake of this discourse, it would suffice to define press freedom as "a fundamental right in a democratic society to seek out and circulate news, information, ideas, comment and opinion and hold those in authority to account. The press should provide the platform for a multiplicity of voices to be heard."
When journalists and Utusan Melayu staff went on their legendary strike to protest the takeover by a political party in 1961, their main objective was to be independent and free from the influence of political parties and the authorities.
The late Said Zahari, the legendary journalist and main leader of the strike at the time, was booted out to Singapore and had to spend 17 years in prison there. He summed up his actions with the statement: "Only with a free policy could Utusan Melayu be the voice of the people, fighting for the interests of the people with sincerity, integrity and courage.”
The Star and Sin Chew Jit Poh were also closed down in 1987 after controversies regarding political and race issues until they were resurrected through yet another takeover by political parties.
Press freedom in Malaysia is guaranteed under Article 10(1) of the Federal Constitution, which states that “Every citizen has the right to freedom of speech and expression”. However, that right is subject to clauses (2), (3) and (4).
The right is given only to citizens, and it is not absolute but subject to certain well-defined restrictions, including the security of the federation, public order, morality, protecting the privileges of parliament or state assembly, contempt, defamation, incitement to any offence and sedition.
It forces journalists and publishers in this country to tiptoe over limitations set by mostly archaic laws under the Official Secrets Act 1972, Sedition Act 1948 and the mother of them all - the Printing and Press Publication Act 1984.
Do journalists matter?
With the development and rising usage of information technology, Malaysian media evolved from television and printed newspapers to digital publications and internet broadcast, creating a new ecosystem for news publishers and journalists to thrive in.
These journalists have changed the landscape of journalism in the country, and for the first time since the takeover of news publications by the authorities, enabled the public to enjoy more and varied information and reports, at the click of a button or at the tip of your fingers.
With many new publications on the rise, the number of journalists increased and as the number games go, more and more are interested in adhering to the definition of press freedom as defined in a model democracy.
However the legacy of rules and regulations has left the media landscape in certain countries in a broken and divided state. It's akin to the divide-and-rule principle practiced by the British colonial masters to stifle unity among the various communities during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Journalists, most of them are opinionated and some are inclined towards racial biasness due to their political beliefs. Not particularly racist as some journalists we meet are good natured and outstanding people, but they have picked up certain political beliefs from both sides of the divide.
The journey towards press freedom in Malaysia can not be achieved without the journalists themselves believing and subscribing to the basic principle of journalism that we know and learnt either in school or on the job - journalism's ethics of truth and accuracy.
These ethics are not provided by the powers that be. It is the responsibility of every journalists from the first copy of news written by them. It makes "Journalism First" the cardinal rule every single journalist must adhere to and believe in.
On April 12, 2012, during the Bersih 3 rally, several journalists were caught in the cross-fire while performing their duties. There was a gathering that same night where mostly young journalists from various publications stood united to say the same thing: "Protect the journalists."
But such behaviour has been rare in the following years to come and despite some sporadic acts from several small groups, we hardly saw the journalists upholding the "Journalism First" belief.
The first thing that enables press freedom is the most basic part, which is having journalists believe that they are all part of the same force that promotes the enhancement of the country, democracy, and the public's point of view.
Without this unity, this belief and this esprit de corps, journalists will always be seen by the public as the ones who follow the orders from politicians, and these politicians have no right whatsoever to control and belittle this noble profession.
The objective of this article is not for the journalists to rise up and take their fight to the streets.
It is just a warm reminder to all journalists, whether they are news editors, sub-editors, special writers, photographers, videographers or supplement writers; working in online media, print media, dailies or weeklies; and whether they are working full-time, part-time, as stringers, as correspondents or as field producers.
They are all brothers and sisters who feed their families and work their fingers to the bones, believing in "Journalism First".
Before we take on the authorities, the public, the rich who own and fund the publications, who might never care to understand what it means to chase sources, wait hours in the rain, come home late at night or early morning, be forced to put up with harassment from political parties or authorities, postpone personal appointments, miss reunions, spend less time with family, have last-minute cross country call-ups, or survive on coffee and biscuits, we must believe that the ones who should be on our side are ourselves.
So dear brothers and sisters, if that can't happen, how else are we going to define what being a journalist is all about?
RADZI RAZAK is a freelance journalist.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.