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Media ban on council’s public hearing is an oxymoron

A town hall meeting is meant to be inclusive so that it involves stakeholders in a decision-making process in a democracy

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A ban reportedly imposed on journalists and photographers trying to cover a public hearing organised by the Shah Alam City Council (MBSA) recently became as controversial as its plan to convert the Shah Alam Community Forest into a commercial development and a cemetery.

A public hearing by definition should also be made accessible to the public through the media, especially on such important matters as turning a tract of forest into commercial development in an era where the threat of climate change is hovering over us.

The town hall meeting was meant to discuss development plans under the council’s local draft plan 2035 within the stipulated period under Section 13(1) and (3) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1976.

Any dialogue, especially one that concerns environmental issues, should not be confined to stakeholders who are likely to be directly affected by the plan as its impact may also be felt elsewhere in the country. Environmental issues are of public interest and, thus, a public hearing of this nature cannot be a “closed-door affair”.

That is why a section of the meeting hall should have been specially designated to media people so that interested people who are unable to attend the meeting because of limited physical space, arising from the physical distancing regime, can still follow the dialogue through media coverage.

Barring media coverage is outright censorship, which is disturbing, considering that this happened in a state under a Pakatan Harapan administration that is expected to be reformist and transparent.

As rightly pointed out by media watchdogs, this ban contravenes the Freedom of Information (State of Selangor) Enactment 2011, which aims to provide people a reasonable right of access to information from every department of the state government and to promote transparency and accountability in the state government.

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The Shah Alam Community Forest Society questioned whether the forest had been gazetted in accordance with procedure, including the requirement to hold public consultations on the matter. It argued that the forest remains a part of the Bukit Cherakah forest reserve.

Imposing a media ban would only invite public suspicion that the state government has something to hide, especially when it is also entangled in yet another controversial plan to de-gazette the North Kuala Langat forest reserve, which is rich in biodiversity, among other positive qualities. The plan received massive public objections, including that of the Orang Asli living in the vicinity.

We should be mindful of the recent snub that Malaysia received from the US when it invited 40 nations, excluding our country, to the Leaders’ Summit on Climate it is hosting. This brings into question our country’s commitment to preserve and conserve the environment.

In the absence of checks and balances in Parliament and state assemblies owing to the declaration of emergency nationwide, the media serves as a crucial mechanism of public scrutiny into actions taken by people in power.

A town hall meeting is meant to be inclusive so that it involves stakeholders in a decision-making process in a democracy. Media coverage of such a meeting has the effect of widening the parameters of the conversation.

Let’s make “public hearings” really public for the sake of transparency and accountability. – The Malaysian Insight

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