LETTER | The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) is disappointed with Parliament's decision to restrict the media's coverage of the upcoming proceedings of both houses to 15 media agencies, and calls for fair and equal media access to in-house Parliamentary proceedings at all times, especially during times of crisis.
According to a statement from Parliament's corporate communications unit yesterday, in-house media coverage for the third meeting of the third term of the 14th Parliament session will be limited to - RTM, Bernama, TV Al-Hijrah, TV3, New Straits Times, Berita Harian, Astro Awani, Utusan Malaysia, Sinar Harian, The Star, The Sun, Sin Chew Daily, Nanyang Siang Pau, Malaysia Nanban and Channel News Asia.
The decision was attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic and said to be in accordance with standard operating procedures (SOP) set by the National Security Council and the Health Ministry. Quite notably, the list excludes online news portals which operate exclusively online.
We would like to ask how Parliament determined which media should be allowed to cover the proceedings. In particular, why were online news portals sidelined? Why is the state responding to Covid-19 related challenges by discriminately limiting the media’s access and undermining their rights and independence in the process, rather than thinking more constructively of other adaptive or mitigative measures that would guarantee the protection and safety of the media?
CIJ wishes to bring to attention the need for fair and equal media access to information through and beyond the current Covid-19 pandemic. In recent months, we have observed a shrinking of spaces for local and international media to report due to unfair restrictions or denials of access on the basis of Covid-19, including instances where access to certain spaces and press conferences is limited to just a few “official media”.
This clearly denotes an attempt by the state to control the narrative and for how and by whom information is to be made available to the public.
As we have repeatedly stated, the role of the state is to create an enabling environment for the media to operate during this time of public health crisis. We reiterate that Covid-19 must not be used as an excuse to restrict access and limit media freedom, ultimately denying the public access to timely and balanced information on the parliamentary proceedings, especially at a time when the budget is to be debated.
In this regard, we call on the aforementioned restrictions to be immediately lifted and the following to be implemented in protecting the rights of the media and creating an enabling and safe environment for the media to fulfil their role without discriminatory restrictions and interference:
- Place a cap on the maximum number of staff from each media organisation instead of limiting the number of media outlets. News agencies may be permitted to send in only a journalist and a photographer or videographer;
- Convert unoccupied rooms into media rooms to ensure that more people can be accommodated, and have a dedicated room just for press conferences to take place;
- Make masks mandatory at all times and ensure proper temperature taking facilities are in place. Hand sanitiser stations must be installed within the premises while frequent disinfecting of high traffic areas must be ensured;
- Ensure that the guidelines and SOPs are implemented without any double standards and require journalists and other visitors to disclose any travel, especially to high-risk areas, within the last 14 days and/or any symptoms of illnesses;
- As a responsible and progressive measure, the state can consider establishing a fund to cover the costs of the Covid-19 swab tests (RT-PCR) for media organisations that cannot afford it, and;
- Suspend all social functions or events within the premises to outside the hours of the proceedings to minimise risks to media and others.
Media pluralism and transparency of the proceedings cannot be compromised especially when the nation is battling extreme challenges due to the Covid-19 pandemic and with the ensuing political turmoil.
Journalists and news portals must be allowed the space to scrutinise and be critical, if necessary, of the legislatures’ position or action in the course of the parliamentary proceedings.
The writer is the executive director of CIJ.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.