This may sound trite to some but recent developments in the country require a reminder that freedom of expression and of the media is one of the main pillars of democracy.
It is the kind of freedom that places importance on the legitimate space for criticism and dissent in a thriving democracy, apart from helping to foster good governance by keeping a government in check.
This reminder is also useful because democracy does not necessarily develop in a linear fashion. Certain features of democracy, such as press freedom, might be rolled back at some point in time by certain state actors.
That is why it is understandable that civil society group Lawyers for Liberty and a cohort of journalists are concerned that the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission had reportedly threatened to invoke the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 to prosecute news outlets that are deemed “disrespectful” or “misleading” in their reporting.
Stifling freedom of speech and of the media is a despicable act that is usually identified with dictatorship, which Malaysia should stay away from, especially under the “Madani” (Civil Malaysia) administration that professes to be reformist.
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If there is a dire need to restrict these freedoms, it should be executed only for reasons of security, public order or morality as stipulated in Article 10(2)(a) of the Federal Constitution.
Besides, curbing the freedoms concerned runs counter to Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s declared commitment to freedom of the press and freedom to criticise.
We have had a nasty taste of an Orwellian nightmare originating from certain administrations in the past. Hence, we should not revisit it if the country is to move forward so that ideas of various hues can flow freely for the collective benefit of the people.
The two terms to be applied to news agencies considered to be out of line are vague enough to lend themselves to abuse. If anything, they give rise to a lot of questions.
How does a particular news outlet become “disrespectful” or “misleading”?
What happens if a news outlet carries a report or a commentary that there are double standards involved in the government’s application of a law pertaining to a particular individual? In short, one rule for the elite and another for the common people. Would this observation be deemed “disrespectful” of the government of the day?
Or, would a news agency be considered “misleading” if it carries a weather forecast that produces an inaccurate prediction? As a result, ministers and other well-to-do Malaysians, for instance, may have had to [unnecessarily] postpone their overseas holidays in anticipation of floods in certain parts of the country.
In other words, defining these broad terms can be arbitrary so that having the government as the final arbiter can be problematic and an affront to press freedom.
Surely, having a “truth ministry” is not in the pipeline.
It would appear to be a knee-jerk reaction on the government’s part if it uses a sledgehammer to block or shut down news agencies for supposedly stepping out of line.
What the government should do instead is to respond by explaining in a civilised manner why it thinks the news agency concerned has broken rules.
A news outlet that is convincingly shown to have violated journalism ethics would have its credibility severely shredded and professionalism questioned. This is enough of a punishment to shrink its readership, [undermine its] clickbaits and [erode] its advertising reach.
Journalists, as humans, can make genuine mistakes in their reporting. In this instance, they ought to have a window to extend their apologies and make corrections accordingly. Such actions would not only be ethical on the part of the news outlets and fair on the government’s side, but also instructive for the general public.
This is where, some would argue, an independent media council would come in handy to resolve matters of journalistic importance, particularly a code of ethics and media accountability.
Severe punitive measures taken by the government would not help to sustain, let alone advance, press freedom and democracy. – The Malaysian Insight