The proposed national media council, if it is to be imposed, should be a forerunner to the repeal of oppressive press laws instead of adding yet another layer to them.
I THINK it should be a freer society, that’s why I am advocating the repeal of the Printing Presses and Publications Act. Let people have a thousand newspapers” - Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, aspiring candidate for the Umno presidency in a recent interview.
That statement alone would have endeared the prince from Kelantan and Umno veteran to a whole lot of media people because the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) is the sword of Damocles hanging over the press in this country.
Anyone who calls for the repeal of the Act becomes almost immediately a friend of the media because it will remove the sword dangling over our heads and make it impossible for the Home Minister to stop a newspaper in its tracks by a mere stroke of the pen.
What is so draconian about the Act is that the closure of a newspaper by withdrawing its publication licence is solely at the discretion of the minister - there is no provision in the Act for an appeal to the courts.
It therefore often gets lumped together with that other piece of infamous legislation, the Internal Security Act (ISA), as among the most oppressive pieces of legislation on the country’s statute books.
Now, the Home Minister has said that a national media council will be established soon to identify weaknesses in the media, and finding ways for accurate reporting.
“I believe this is the right platform, and the right time to strengthen relations between the government and the media organisations,” Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar said, adding that it should not be seen an attempt to curb the press.
The press is likely to welcome such an announcement if it is indeed not aimed at curbing press freedom. But what is all-important is how the composition of the council is decided, its terms of reference and whether it will be free from government control.
Otherwise it becomes yet another layer of control over the press and would offer, from the government point of view, a more legitimate form of control over the press than the PPPA. That would be a mistake and the fragile press freedom enjoyed at the pleasure of the government will come under even more pressure.
But perhaps we are being uncharitable. Perhaps the minister has more noble intentions than we give him credit for. Maybe, just maybe, the proposal for a national media council would set the stage for the repeal of the PPPA in full. That will undoubtedly receive unmitigated support from all of us here in the media fraternity.
Advocates of both the PPPA and ISA often voice the same reason for the existence of the Acts, which is to, broadly speaking, ensure the freedom that we enjoy is not abused to bring chaos to the country. But really that is outmoded thinking from a bygone era.
At the end of the day, there should be just one requirement for newspapers and everyone else, which is they must abide by the law - not the requirements, whims and fancies of the government of the day.
If they flout the laws, they should be taken to task. If they are seen to be inciting the public to riot, burn, loot, bomb or assassinate, there are laws to deal with them - the Sedition Act for instance.
If they write false stories about people and damage their reputation, there are the laws of defamation and slander under which those affected can seek redress.
The point is there are sufficient laws to check press abuse of any sort. For instances where the lines may not be that clear, such as the methods used to obtain stories, the national media council can play a useful role as they have in other countries.
It is very important to realise that the national press council cannot supplant the law in terms of oversight of the media - the law has to take its course.
But it can make a judgement on ethical issues of the industry where it can promulgate and help adherence to a code of behaviour.
Take the instance of news portal Malaysiakini which posted on its website what was purported to be an Umno election manifesto of Umno deputy president Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.
The portal had made a mistake and it promptly apologised for the error and accepted the resignation of the person responsible.
Those things help to establish that Malaysiakini acted in good faith and mitigates any offence it may have committed against the law in terms of defamation and incitement.
If there was a national press council and if Malaysiakini was a part of that, the council may rebuke Malaysiakini for the mistake and impose self-regulation penalties but it can’t take legal action against the portal. That would be up to the authorities.
As an aside, what was heartening about that incident was that Najib accepted the apology and was quite happy to let the matter rest apart from the niggling matter of who put up such a manifesto and sent it to Malaysiakini in the first place.
That demonstrates on Najib’s part an understanding of how the media operates and acceptance of the fact that mistakes can be made.
We need more Malaysian leaders to be similarly enlightened about the media and not use us as the bogeyman to justify unfair laws and regulations.
Perhaps it is too much to hope for, but diehard optimists that we are, we in the media fraternity fervently hope that the proposed national media council would lead to the demise of the dreaded PPPA.
P. Gunasegaram is managing editor at The Star. He thinks you must be free to be responsible.
Freedom with responsibility