The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) is deeply concerned with Malaysia’s deterioration in the Reporters Without Border’s (RSF) annual press freedom ranking.
Malaysia’s press freedom ranking is now down 18 places at 119 (out of 180 countries ranked). For context, Malaysia’s best ranking was just one year ago in 2020 (101st place).
The rating comes as no surprise for several reasons.
First, the political turmoil since the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition took power in March 2020 has acted as barriers to the media taking on its role independently.
Second, there is an ongoing crackdown on media for their reporting, especially during the Covid pandemic.
Lastly, laws that stifle press freedom are still in place and are being used against journalists and media agencies.
Restrictions of spaces for reporting
Several Parliament or state assembly sittings and press conferences by government ministers have been restricted to only “official” state-owned media, sidelining online news portals which operate exclusively online, which are often more critical of the state and its policies.
These include the one-day Parliament sitting on 18 May 2020, the 11 May 2020 Malacca state assembly sitting, the 12 May 2020 Perak state assembly sitting, the 12 September 2020 nominations for the Sabah state elections, and the October 2020 Parliament sitting.
Press conferences after high-level briefings by senior ministers and the prime minister are also limited to state-owned media. In all these instances, Covid was cited as the reason for these bizarre and disproportionate restrictions.
Last year saw several journalists and media agencies investigated, harassed and subjected to legal action by the state for their critical reporting, dissenting views or platform.
High-profile cases include that of blogger Dian Abdullah, Channel News Asia Malaysia bureau chief Melissa Goh, former South China Morning Post correspondent Tashny Sukumaran, CodeBlue editor-in-chief Boo Su-Lyn, Malaysiakini and its editor-in-chief Stevan Gan, Gerakbudaya and the authors of Rebirth, Al Jazeera, Astro and UnifiTV.
This list does not include the numerous instances of online harassment by ministers against journalists who allegedly misreported the news. Read together, these can be seen as a deliberate and concerted series of actions intended to stifle media freedom.
Continual use of repressive laws
Various repressive and archaic laws were used against the media and journalists last year. These laws include Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, the Sedition Act 1948, Section 504 of the Penal Code, Section 505 of the Penal Code and the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984. Other laws include Section 203A of the Penal Code and Section 114A of the Evidence Act 1950.
Impacts of RSF rating
The drop in the rating signifies that the current government may have been successful in their intimidation and fear tactics that are now possibly contributing to an environment where the media are more suppressed and less inclined to be overly critical and expected to toe the line in reporting.
A democratic nation must ensure freedom for journalists to carry out their duties in delivering news and freedom for the public to gain access to accurate, reliable, and timely information. When the media can perform their duties without fear and favour, the public will definitely obtain information that is accurate and unbiased.
This is our means of ensuring effective scrutiny and holding the government accountable to the people through good governance and the rule of law.
As a media watchdog, we are especially concerned that Malaysia’s position on the world press freedom index will continue going down the ladder if the government continues to undermine and threaten media freedom in Malaysia.
As such, we call for the following measures to be adopted by the state at once to ensure that an enabling environment is created for the media to function independently:
- Drop all investigations and stop all acts of intimidation and adverse actions (past, present and future) against the media and journalists
- Place a moratorium on the use of repressive laws that the state has committed to amend, including the Emergency (Essential Powers) (No. 2) Ordinance 2021, Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act, the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, the Sedition Act, the Official Secrets Act 1972 and the National Film Development Corporation (Finas) Act 1981
- Ensure that any measures taken to tackle Covid and have the potential to restrict media freedom are legal, necessary, proportionate and temporary, with the sole aim of mitigating the immediate public health crisis, and
- Move ahead with the establishment of the Malaysian Media Council as a transparent and independent self-regulatory body for the industry.
Wathshlah G Naidu is executive director of the Centre for Independent Journalism