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Malaysia hailed for improved press freedom as world democracies flail

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An international democracy watchdog warns that press freedom across the world is under threat, but has raised Malaysia as an example of a country bucking that worrying trend.

In a Freedom House report titled 'Freedom and the Media: A Downward Spiral', Malaysia is listed alongside Ethiopia, Armenia, Ecuador and The Gambia as the five nations where press freedom had improved in the past two years.

This, it deduced, was largely due to political change and democratic progress.

“This correlation underscores once again the close relationship between media freedom and political change - just as anti-democratic power grabs often involve attacks on independent media, a reformist leadership is defined in part by its willingness to accept criticism from a free press.

“And just as restrictions on media freedom frequently precede the erosion of other rights, the removal of such restrictions facilitates and catalyses further democratic advancements,” the Freedom House report said.

According to the NGO, these political transitions have also led to better environments for independent journalism.

“In Malaysia and Ecuador, the lifting of political pressure on the media allowed independent outlets to rebound from censorship and previously pro-government outlets to produce less obsequious coverage.

“In Ethiopia, outlets that had been operating from abroad were able to return to the country. In The Gambia, persecuted journalists returned from exile, and more locals have decided to enter the profession," the report said.

Keep defending press freedom

Freedom House, however, warned that any gains in press freedom needed to be consistently defended to prevent conditions from sliding backwards.

“Media freedom can recover much more quickly after a period of authoritarian governance than some other elements of democracy, such as the rule of law. But it is also subject to rapid reversals.

“Like democracy itself, press freedom is not an end state that remains secure once it is achieved - it must be nurtured and defended against the forces that oppose it,” it said.

Following the fall of the BN regime in last year’s 14th general election, Malaysia’s ranking on the World Press Freedom Index improved by 22 places.

Among the other key findings of the Freedom House report were that media independence in established democracies, as well as other democratic freedoms, was being compromised by the rise of “populist leaders”.

This was especially so in the United States, Hungary, Serbia, Israel and India.

“Populist leaders present themselves as the defenders of an aggrieved majority against liberal elites and ethnic minorities whose loyalties they question, and argue that the interests of the nation - as they define it - should override democratic principles like press freedom, transparency and open debate,” it said.

In total, it said 16 democracies have seen a drop in their press freedom scores in the past five years.

“It has become painfully apparent that a free press can never be taken for granted, even when a democratic rule has been in place for decades,” Freedom House said.  

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