Saturday, November 29, 2008 07:45:46 PM
A government proposal to set up a media council to ‘regulate’ news reporting has alarmed journalists who see it as an attempt to add yet another layer of control over their profession.
Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar who made the announcement early November said that the government intends to establish a national media policy and a regulatory body for the media called the National Media Council.
He said that the policy is being drafted and the foundations for the council are being established. But the proposal seems deliberately vague and civil rights lawyers see it as an attempt to rein in the media which has appeared freer and more exertive after the Mar.8 general election that saw the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO)-led coalition government suffer unprecedented losses.
Mainstream media, much of it owned and controlled by ruling parties or individuals allied with government, have responded to the changed political landscape with critical comments and reporting.
However, this response may be an attempt to retain readership, survive as business enterprises and maintain control over advertising revenue. There is competition from Internet-based media which is more aggressive and beginning to poach on advertisement revenues that have traditionally been a preserve of print media.
"The government is hoping that through a media council it could exert greater control over media contents and keep them from reporting opposition views," said Yap Swee Seng, executive director of SUARAM, a leading rights NGO.
"Fear of losing control is driving them," he told IPS adding that alternative, Internet-based media could also be brought under the "regulation" of the proposed council.
So far the government has not specified what the council is for, its area of authority and who may come under its ambit.
Unlike before, when mainstream media were mere mouthpieces of the Barisan Nasional (National Alliance) coalition and toed the official line diligently, the political changes have encouraged the media to be more critical and demanding that authorities account for their actions.
Although the media is freer all the laws that control and regulate publishing remain in place making the proposal to set up media council "highly suspicious" said a senior editor with a Chinese vernacular daily. He declined to be identified for fear of reprisal.
"During a meeting between editors and the authorities we objected strongly to the media council move," he told IPS referring to a meeting between the two sides in early November.
"We asked the government to repeal all the numerous restrictive laws first before carrying through the media council set-up," he said.
Under current laws all media must obtain a publishing permit which is issued for a year and expires automatically at term end. Permits are issued or withdrawn at the sole discretion of the home minister.
Even a court of law cannot challenge the decision of the minister and journalists can be jailed for a mandatory one year for publishing "false" news. "It is a catch all phrase that hangs like a sword of Damocles over our heads," another editor said.
The group chief editor of ‘The Star’ daily, Wong Chun Wai, spoke up in his blog against the media council saying there were "too many stringent laws governing the press and certainly we do not need any (new) regulatory body’’. He said if the proposed media council body takes off it should consist not of politicians but editors, publishers, ministry officials and representatives from NGOs. Some opposition lawmakers have called for an "independent high-powered Media Council" that would promote free and responsible reporting with the powers to expose and punish irresponsible reporting.
They said such a council could curb race and religion based hate reporting that is on the rise and practised by several government-owned daily newspapers and television stations.
"On one side the media is much freer but on the other hand some media is abusing the freedom to create rift among the races," said Yap. "It is a complex issue and needs to be well researched." Others, including bloggers and even former premier Dr Mahathir Mohamed, a prominent blogger now, are opposed to the idea.
A media council should not be sprung on the profession without extensive consultations with all stake holders, said Gayathry Venkiteswaran executive director of the Centre for Independent Journalism.
"The authorities must first review and repeal regulations and procedures that restrict media freedom and the public’s access to information," she said in a statement. She said the Printing Presses and Publications Act, the Official Secrets Act and the Sedition Act as laws that were outdated and irrelevant in a democratic society. "The government should set up a parliamentary select committee on the media to discuss press freedom and media law reform," Wong Chin Huat, a Monash University academic and political activist told IPS.
"The select committee can collect public feedback as well as consult civil society members to reflect the views of all the stakeholders," he said urging the media fraternity to stand united against any new "control" mechanism.
"A thorough and open review of all the laws and policies that govern media is also urgently needed," he said. (Baradan Kuppusamy)
POLITICS-MALAYSIA: Alarm at Move to Regulate Media
Mindanao Examiner, Philippines