Monday, October 27, 2008

Malaysian Media Council: Double handcuffs or media freedom?

DANIEL CHANDRANAYAGAM , Ocktober 25th 2008

A small portrait of the translator

Amidst a number of recent journalistic blunders, Malaysia’s Home Minister, Syed Hamid Albar, announced that the government has full intention of establishing a national media policy, together with a regulatory body over Malaysian media. Syed Hamid said that that a policy is currently being drafted and also that the foundations of a National Media Council is being established.

Syed Hamid’s announcement is notwithstanding long-held objections by journalists, activists and civil society groups.

The government has not been precise on why a National Media Council and policy should be implemented. The purpose for setting up a Media Council in 2001, according to the then Information Parliamentary Secretary, Zainuddin Maidin, was so that journalists remain sensitive to the political and social scenarios, and to enable chief editors to contend with bigger problems.

Meanwhile, the opposition in 2001 wanted an “independent high-powered Media Council” to promote free and responsible press, with powers to expose all instances of irresponsible foreign and local reporting.

Going on this premise, Malaysia might possibly need a media policy and a regulatory body, as there has been allegations of several alleged breaches of journalistic ethics this year alone, including non-verification of facts and alleged hate journalism.

Bloggers, including former premier, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed, are less than convinced. According to the Malaysia Update blog, Dr Mahathir said:

“It is not necessary. It is up to the media. If you deal in a lot of rumour and speculation, then you will not sell newspapers.”

He added that the media should be self-regulating.

A commenter on Malaysia Today, the website of detained blogger Raja Petra Kamaruddin, said:

“No point having national media council if the Printing Presses and Publications Act and the broadcast restriction using Multimedia Commission is not lifted. Contrary to TDM [Tun Dr Mahathir], it still won't be self regulation if all these laws are in place. Of course, TDM may not think so because he does not subscribe to the view that these provisions stifle the press as they are still able to criticise him when he was in power.

“Anyway, the point of having the media commission is not to punish people like Malaysiakini, but rather [to] ensure objective reporting of [the] like[s] [of] NST [New Straits Times] and Utusan Melayu. It should definitely not be a place to seek remedy for defamation because that would be duplicating the function of the court.”

In fact, Home Minister Syed Hamid has been non-committal about the abolition of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 (PPPA), which requires anyone seeking to publish or print to obtain a licence from government. According to Malaysiakini, more than 900 journalists had signed a petition for the repeal of the licensing provisions under the PPPA.

Blogger, Masterwordsmith, had a ten-point response on her blog. She questions the need to “waste government resources/taxpayers' money by creating a media council as another regulatory authority over the print media”.

Mastwordsmith also asks why nothing has been done about the short story written by Chamil Wariya in the Malay language newspaper, Mingguan Malaysia, which allegedly incites the public towards violence against a Member of Parliament. Chamil Wariya, is the president of the Malaysian Press Institute (MPI), which is said to be assisting in the formulation of the proposed Media Council and Policy.

Blogger Kean-Jin Lim, a Malaysian working in Finland, stated, in response to Syed Hamid’s citing the UK as having a press council:

“Min[i]ster used UK as example in this case. They told us before we should not learn from Western world. Now, they gave you example from Western world. Selective choice isn’t it? We see many complaints made to several commissions we already have; however, the outcome so far?”

It also appears that most new media are unaware of the ‘new media policy’. Blogger and now politician, Jeff Ooi, stated at a forum on Blogging and Defamation that most of the online press he had spoken to only found out about this development through the press. Ooi added at the forum that having a media council would be like being “double hand-cuffed”.

It should be noted that a survey conducted by Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) and Merdeka Center on media independence, 35% of the respondents said the government should play the most important role in improving media independence in Malaysia. Furthermore, the media is seen by some members of the public as important. For example, PJ Moorthy, ends his post on the issue on his blog, on this note:

“Perhaps, then if the proposed National Media Council actually did cover the blogosphere, then maybe… these personal opinion maestros of the blogs might just succumb to authority. As it is, the likes of [anonymous] bloggers will continue to mesmerize their readers with imagined fowls and miraged post men with their fairy tales!

This writer believes that these personal pages (otherwise known as Blogs) remain….oh so personal and should not be looked at as THE SOURCE for news.”

However, the idea for a Media Council has been mooted for many years. Only time will tell when it will be established and how effective it will be in its role of regulating media in Malaysia.