On PPPA – 4. Race to free the media (The Sun)

BN and PR must outdo each other in democratising Malaysia

And media laws reform must be made one of the top priorities in the
renewed deMahathirisation drive alongside the reforms of the
judiciary, electoral system and process, ACA, police and other
institutions.

Race to free the media
http://www.sun2surf.com/article.cfm?id=21850

comment by Wong Chin Huat

IF there is one single law that should bear the responsibility for
Barisan Nasional’s (BN) electoral setback on March 8, it is the
Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 (PPPA).

Why was BN’s well-oiled machine not aware of and unable to respond
effectively to the heightened public discontent over various issues
from the economy and crime to ethnic relations?

Media monopoly. Media censorship. Because entry to and existence in
the market are conditioned on BN-friendliness, the mainstream media
led the coalition’s top leadership to believe in their own propaganda
but alienated most of their readers and audience. In the print media,
the key weapon of such media control was none other than the PPPA.

The act provides three tools to control the information and opinion
flows: (1) the licence to use any printing press that can print over
1,000 impressions per hour (Part II); (2) the annually renewable
permit to publish any periodical (Part III); (3) the power to ban any
undesirable publications (which is normally applied to books after
their publication or upon importation) (Part IV).

A Race in DeMahathirisation

The use of PPPA to control media was characteristic of Mahathir’s era.
The strongman prime minister closed down three newspapers – The Star,
Sin Chew Jit Poh and Watan – during the Operasi Lalang in 1987 when he
was embattled both within and outside his party.

The rejection of Makkal Osai’s application for its 2008 publication
permit was therefore bizarre when PM Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi
just embarked on a key de-Mahathirisation measure – redeeming the
damage of the 1988 Judiciary Crisis which followed Operasi Lalang.
(Makkal Osai’s permit was renewed last Thursday and it resumed
publication on April 26). As human rights lawyer Malik Imtiaz asked
aptly: Reform? What Reform?

Perhaps due to the public outcry on Makkal Osai, in a round-about-turn
fashion, Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar now talks about the
need to review PPPA.

Talk is cheap

If the Prime Minister and the Home Minister are sincerely interested
in media law reform, they should heed the demand of civil society on
the World Press Freedom Day (May 3) in 2006: set up a Parliamentary
Select Committee to comprehensively study media law reforms.

In other words, not only does the purpose and function of PPPA need to
be thoroughly investigated, so do those of the Sedition Act (seditious
publications), Internal Security Act (subversive documents) and
Official Secrets Act.

A select committee – with members from both sides of the divide – may
organise public hearings to maximise citizen participation, unlike the
conventional way of law-making where rules are made in the chamber of
the Attorney General under the order of the ministry and cabinet.

Talk is cheap – now not only for the Barisan Nasional, but also for
Pakatan Rakyat, which controls 37% of parliamentary seats and five
states (where 46% of the nation’s electorate reside).

BN and PR must outdo each other in democratising Malaysia

And media laws reform must be made one of the top priorities in the
renewed deMahathirisation drive alongside the reforms of the
judiciary, electoral system and process, ACA, police and other
institutions.

BN had kicked the ball into its own goal by initially rejecting Makkal
Osai’s appeal to renew its permit, although it subsequently granted
the licence. It should now set up a Parliamentary Select Committee to
redeem its record.

The formation of a caucus for freedom of expression and freedom of
information by eight PR parliamentarians, which can be the push factor
for the Select Committee to be established, is a brilliant strike on
the opposition’s side.

The Achilles’ Heels of PPPA

But the PR can and must do more than just that. The five state
governments hold the key to effectively dismantle the core of PPPA by
exploiting the loopholes.

They could have easily come to rescue Makkal Osai the very next day
when it was told its permit would not be renewed by offering to
publish the newspaper free from any permit requirement.

One of PPPA’s Achilles’ heels lies in its Section 25(1) which states:
“Nothing in this Act shall extend to the publication or making of any
documents or periodical by or for the Federal or any State Government
or any statutory body.”

Clearly, the provision was not drafted for the possibility of state
governments that would love free press more than the federal
government does.

While the subsection covers only production and is silent on
circulation, Sections 5 and 6 which deal with the permit do not
specify a permit exclusively for circulation independent from
publication.

Haris Ibrahim, the lawyer-activist who runs the People’s Parliament
blog, splendidly points out an even greater loophole, newspapers as
defined by Section 2 of PPPA “does not include any publication
published by or for the Federal or any State Government or the
Government of Singapore”.

In other words, anything published by or for a state government may
look like a newspaper, sound like a newspaper but is not a newspaper
legally speaking.

Since the entire Part III (Sections 5 and 6) of PPPA does not apply, a
newspaper published “for” a state can be sold nationwide.

Therefore if any PR state government had offered Makkal Osai to
publish “for” the state, whether or not the Tamil daily accepted the
offer, the threat of revoking or denying a newspaper or magazine its
publication permit is as good as dead.

Would this cost Makkai Osai or any authorised publication its
independence and reduce it to the mirror image of BN-controlled press?

No, not if the state government formulates a non-discretionary policy
that offers such an opportunity to publish for the state to any
entities fulfilling some minimum requirements and promises
zero-intervention in editorial matters.

In brief, a state government exercising its full power under Sections
2 and 25 of the PPPA can effectively render the act largely toothless.

Such “state activism” may be the exact catalyst needed to force the BN
Federal Government to establish a Select Committee on media law
reforms.

In the past, the opposition may get by with merely condemning the
ruling party through press releases.

Claiming to be the government-in-waiting, PR must now show its ability
and willingness to offer a better deal than BN.

The race to free the media is on. And talk is cheap.

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