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Here’s how Malaysia can climb back up the media freedom ladder

We need progressive, inclusive social policies and strategies to be put in place and implemented


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The latest Reporters Without Borders (RSF) index appears to have shocked and embarrassed a number of our “Madani” (civil and compassionate) government officials, including the communications minister. As they should be.

Malaysia dropped further down the oft-quoted and widely recognised RFS index, from 73rd place out of 180 countries last year, to a dismal and shameful 107th this year.

Looking around at events over the past year, we can see why.

Draconian laws have not been removed, despite the main parties in this hastily cobbled “unity government” talking about reforms.

Instead, these repressive laws, such as the Sedition Act, the Printing Presses and Publications Act and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) are still used to punish people – often for seemingly harmless comments.

Section 233 of the CMA states it is unlawful to use “network facilities to transmit communication deemed to be offensive or could cause annoyance to another person”.

It’s as if, like the repressive Barisan Nasional governments before, the unity government has taken out its sledgehammers to flatten voices of dissension. All not good and increasingly repressive, despite the minister making excuses for the poor RSF showing.

Sure, Malaysia’s social media environment can get rather nasty. But those monitoring it sometimes seem clueless and heavy-handed in addressing some of the issues raised. So they censor, impose the law, charge in court and possibly imprison.

These seem to be the main – if not the only – ‘remedies’ the Madani regime can think of. This is lazy thinking that seems devoid of creative alternatives that will help us grow, instead of leaving us shaking our heads in despair and disgust.

Last September, for instance, we witnessed the sad case of the regime banning the online film Mentega Terbang from any screening in Malaysia.

In January this year, the film’s producer and director were charged in court “for deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of others”. (We seem to be so easily wounded.)

This was essentially because they produced a film that “revolves around the journey of a 15-year-old Muslim girl, who becomes curious about faith and the afterlife because of her mother’s declining health”.

More recently, the authorities clamped down on minimarket chain KK Super Mart and its supplier for selling socks – all 14 pairs of them nationwide – that, like Mentega Terbang,wounded religious feelings” – in this case because the socks had the word “Allah” printed in Jawi script on them.

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Not surprisingly, this being Bolehland, other artefacts – shoes, prayer mats – were dragged out of the woodwork for seemingly insulting some Muslims in Malaysia.

The problem seems to be the authorities react to these events in a knee-jerk way, quick to jump to the side of the accusers – however small, though vocal, they may be – and equally quick to punish the ‘wrongdoers’.

But then, they are pretty slow to act against those wishing to gain political mileage from these events and those seeking ‘revenge’ through violent and clearly illegal means.

Indeed, we haven’t heard much more about the cases of Molotov cocktails being thrown at KK Super Mart outlets after the socks controversy. These acts clearly aimed at doing much more than just ‘wounding feelings’. They were criminal. So, have the culprits been arrested and charged?

All these developments do not reflect well on a progressive, reformist, thinking administration. Certainly, they wouldn’t reflect well on any freedom index put up by RSF or any international organisation.

Sometimes we wonder who’s being listened to by the regime. Last month, the king himself said the ‘Allah socks’ issue should not to be prolonged. Even more recently – albeit a bit belated, as he needed to do his research and be certain – the Perak mufti advised against the KK boycott, stating that “the boycott goes against the Islamic principles of justice”.  

Yet, we don’t hear much, if at all, from our political ‘leaders’ supporting these wise comments. Not a squeak from them openly chastising the Umno youth wing character who started the boycotts and who has thus far not asked for it to end or apologised not only to KK, but to everyone in Malaysia.

Looking ahead, we clearly need to look at several things if we wish to climb back up the freedom ladder.

We already have more than enough laws to combat disinformation and misinformation. The problem lies in the actual interpretation of what constitutes disinformation and even hate speech. It is also important to apply laws properly to prioritise societal welfare over political and ideological interests.

To tackle these problems more effectively, we need to be more professional and develop the right strategies and policies. These should be based on proper studies and not hearsay or the whims of politicians, religious groups or anyone else.

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Enough of knee-jerk responses. Engage professionals, such as sociologists, political scientists, psychologists and media scholars to look into these problems.

Genuinely and comprehensively, first, decide what the problems really are.

Second, what are the implications of these problems and for whom?

Third, are these potentially short-term or long-term problems?

Fourth, think about which agencies (media, schools, universities, police, civil society) are best placed to tackle these problems.

Prepare ahead based on studies and knowledge, not prejudices.

It is prejudice and sheer ignorance, I believe, that marred official responses to, say, Mentega Terbang.

The role of good government and good governance is to encourage the people – all people – to develop and even challenge their thinking. And not to control that thinking unnecessarily.

This requires political will.

The problem stems from within the corridors of those in power and among those who covet power, who often play up extremist sentiments consciously and systematically when it suits them.

So, they are not about to have the political will to oppose and get rid of strategies and actions that will benefit them.

This has been the successful, albeit disgusting, strategy of Umno-Barisan Nasional, all the years it was in power, to control Malaysian society.

So, to draw the line, those in a position to combat this (Pakatan Harapan, Perikatan Nasional, Islamic groups) must first agree that the current path of extremist politics will lead to destruction.

Next, use the laws of the land – but this needs to be done consistently. We need fair and equal administration of the laws.

For example, you can’t just go after KK Super Mart and not go after the Umno youth wing head. Doing that makes the law and those who enforce the law lose credibility and respect.

In the long run, future generations will need major re-education with different rules and political motivations. We fight racism and bigotry with anti-racism and anti-bigotry – not with more racism. We need to go on the attack with multiculturalism and not be on the defensive.

We need progressive, inclusive social policies and strategies to be put in place and implemented. Regulatory frameworks and laws on their own will not be sustainable.

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The question of ‘why are the extremists extreme?’ must be investigated and discussed beforehand. Are there socioeconomic reasons – eg inequalities, alienation, lack of social justice – causing the drift to the extreme right and the need to clamp down and control?

These are difficult sociological questions that need to be addressed. Our societal problems cannot be resolved simply through gadgets and greater control.

Banning and censorship provide no solutions beyond the censorship and banning. The problem will not go away, as we have seen with the banning of pornography.

We – or the regime – must provide explanations (not sermons), counters or alternatives that are convincing and appealing. Banning cuts off communication when the aim should be to open channels and engage with alternative viewpoints, to challenge them on their own terms (religion, race) rather than to shut them up. That is the democratic, civilised and progressive way.

Freedom of speech, of course, is important. But hate speech is problematic. So are racism and religious bigotry. So are xenophobia and misogyny.

Yes, there must be clear boundaries drawn up. But they must be drawn up by wise people – not simply ideologues, politicians, specific religious leaders and civil servants, all-male.

These boundaries must be designed based on research not only on the media platforms. They must also consider the complexities of Malaysian society and how leaders have manipulated these complexities.

Perhaps, we need to think about and craft something like a race relations law that addresses the need for equality and justice for all ethnic groups for now and the future.

Disinformation – no matter how it is disseminated, by whom and in how many ways we cut it – is still disinformation.

Under current circumstances and for disinformation to be addressed adequately and professionally, the authorities must not take sides, charging and penalising some while conveniently ignoring others.

The same authorities must act based on sufficient investigation, facts and concrete evidence. They must not act purely based on sentiment, emotions and fiction.

This is the way towards improving our RSF ranking.

This is the way towards overcoming insanity – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Rom Nain
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
7 May 2024

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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