It was a great disappointment that access to the parliamentary session of the Dewan Rakyat from 13 September was limited to only 16 media organisations.
Such media restriction largely resembles the practice during the previous administration and appears jarring at a time when the Ismail Sabri Yaakob government is offering certain institutional reforms.
That is why media advocacy groups, namely the Centre for Independent Journalism, Gerakan Media Merdeka (Geramm), and the National Union of Journalists, rightly regarded Dewan Rakyat Speaker Azhar Azizan Harun’s recent decision to limit media access as a transgression of media freedom in the country.
The 16 media agencies reportedly allowed to cover the parliamentary sitting are government media agencies RTM, Bernama, the Information Department and Finas, while the rest are Astro Awani, TV3, Berita Harian, Sinar Harian, The Sun, The Star, Sin Chew Daily, Nanyang Siang Pau, Malaysia Nanban, AFP, Malaysiakini and MalaysiaNow.
It is disturbing that Azhar apparently did not offer any reason for his recent media prescription. The affected media agencies obviously deserve an explanation from the Speaker, especially when the decision smacks of arbitrariness.
Incidentally, such arbitrariness is reminiscent of the recent censorship imposed by the Film Censorship Board on two broadcasting stations for displaying male and female undergarments even though they were not physically worn by humans. Apparently, there are people who can get easily excited by the sight of undies unattached to human bodies.
The parliamentary ruling baffled many as a few long-established media organisations, such as the New Straits Times and Utusan Malaysia, as well as a few other news portals were left out of the approval list, while a new kid on the block, particularly Malaysia Now, was included.
Surely, unequal access to media coverage is unjust and undemocratic. The criteria used for the selection should be made known to all media organisations in the interest of transparency.
Denying certain media access to parliamentary debates is equivalent to censorship, which is not in line with the spirit of democracy and media freedom. It also has the implication of shielding parliamentarians from wider media scrutiny. More than that, it also deprives ordinary people of their right to information regarding the parliamentary sessions through their preferred news outlets.
It should be obvious by now that media of diverse backgrounds should have the freedom to cover parliamentary sittings, providing news and information from their respective perspectives that serve the varied tastes and interests of the people. Different questions can be asked by different media agencies, thereby quenching the thirst of the people for wide-ranging information and perspectives. Such diversity is vital to democracy.
Any ruling on media access should be guided by the principles of fairness and media freedom. For instance, if physical distancing is necessary to curb the pandemic, efforts must be made to ensure that enough space in the Parliament building is allocated to the media organisations for their coverage.
If the physical space is made limited by the standard operating procedure of the pandemic protocol, then the media organisations can decide among themselves to determine fairly how best to provide coverage that would satisfy the needs of all the media organisations.
A democratic and fair process would ensure that any decision on media coverage would not be made unilaterally by a single media organisation.
Parliament should shelter a crucial element of democracy, ie media freedom. – The Malaysian Insight