Free Speech. Information Access. Empowerment.
Malaysians’ Demands on World Press Freedom Day
3 May 2008
Two years ago, in an unprecedented move, 37 civil society organisations and almost 100 individuals signed a statement calling for the abolition of the Printing Presses and Publications Act and to institute other reforms in the legal and political environments to enable the media to operate freely and independently in Malaysia.
The statement was signed in disappointment of the Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s failed promise of fighting corruption and upholding political integrity and accountability when he took office in 2003.
The call for a free press fell unfortunately to deaf ears but it has only grown louder two years later as the Barisan Nasional learned painfully on March 8. To our disappointment, the setback in the 12th general elections has failed to remind PM Abdullah the nation’s thirsting desire for a free press.
He promised reform in the judiciary and reform of the Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA) but unfortunately nothing about reform of the media law. Even more disappoitingly, the Home Ministry has recently rejected the application for the publication permit renewal by an outspoken Tamil daily Makkal Osai before approving its appeal a week later. The Ministry still withholds the renewal of a relatively independent Chinese daily, Oriental Daily.
Is it any surprise that Malaysia ranks 141 amongst 195 countries surveyed in the 2008 Global Press Freedom Rankings released by the Freedom House on April 29? Does the government not feel ashamed that our country is placed at the bottom 30% in the world on press freedom?
Our Core Values
The post-March 8 Malaysia demands and deserves a re-democratization process which must uphold the core values of free speech, information access and empowerment, amongst others.
Firstly, there must be free speech. As the owner of the country and the boss to the government, the citizenry must be free to express and exchange their views. To this end, there must not be unwarranted legal barriers of entry to the use of and access to print, broadcast and internet media. The fourth estate must serve as the watchdog rather than a lapdog to the state.
Secondly, there must be consummate information access related to public affairs for every citizen who demands so. Democracy will be hollow without informed choice, which in turn requires both a free press and guaranteed access to public sector information.
Lastly, there must be empowerment of the citizenry. They must feel confident about their ability to effect changes in public life.
The voice of the marginalized and the weak must be represented in the public sphere. This requires the protection of media diversity besides the freedom to speak.
Guided by these values, a democracy has no place for the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) which is used arbitrarilyy and viciously to not only keep the media in line, but also to prevent ordinary citizens from exercising their full rights to access information. Official Secrets Act must be replaced by a Freedom of Information Act. Similarly, other draconian laws or provisions therein that stifle the citizen’s fundamental human rights, like the Internal Security Act, Offical Secrets Act, University and University Colleges Act and Police Act contradict the very idea of a liberal democracy.
As citizens, we demand that both the Barisan Nasional coalition (controlling 63% of the federal parliament and governing eight states) and the Pakatan Rakyat (controlling 37% of the federal parliament and governing five states) make a commitment and demonstrate their political will to place reforms towards media freedom in their administrative and legislative agendas.
On this World Press Freedom Day of 2008 , we, the undersigned civil society organizations and individual citizens committed to promoting social reform and upholding freedom of expression, solemnly express our three demands:
A Parliamentary Select Committee on Media Law Freedom
We applaud the eight elected parliamentarians from the Pakatan Rakyat who have formed a Caucus on Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Information, but we urge the Barisan Nasional Government to establish a multiparty
Parliamentary Select Committee to study the state of freedom of information and expression in Malaysia and identify necessary reforms in all media-related laws. Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA), Internal Security Act, Official Secrets Act and Sedition Act must be repealed while Communications and Multimedia Act must be revised to ensure (a) no personal and institutional threats to the freedom of writers, journalists and publishers; (b) no unjustified barrier of entry to result in political control of the media industry; (c) no excessive concentration of media ownership, whether within or across media.
Such a select committee is necessary to avoid piecemeal and unsynchronized reform as the media is governed by three different ministries, namely Home Affairs; Energy, Water and Communications; and Information. More importantly, the Select Committee may invite public input to ensure the reform reflects the aspiration of all Malaysians and not just politicians.
Abolition and Shelving of the PPPA
We urge the Parliament to repeal the PPPA to allow a free environment for media, and in lieu of its repeal, to amend the mechanisms that government the licensing of the media, specifically, to the effect that (a) all media outlets only need to register with the Ministry without printing license or annual publishing permit; (b) and the reinstatement of judicial review.
The burden is primarily the Barisan Nasional’s but also shared by the Pakatan Rakyat. In terms of legislation, the BN should establish a parliamentary select committee to study comprehensive media laws reform. In the event of the BN’s refusal, the PR parliamentarians may table a private member bill to repeal PPPA and replace with a liberal publication law. In terms of enforcement, the BN should effectively shelf the PPPA before its abolition by approving every application for printing press license and publication permit and restraining from arbitrary enforcement of content policing.
If the Home Affairs Ministry arbitrary revokes or suspends any publisher’s publication permit or reject its application, the PR state governments should be prepared to exercise its power under Sections 2 and 25(1) under PPPA to authorize the publisher to publish for the state, free from the requirement of publication permit. While the Federal Government may challenge such authorization in the court, it will open up the whole debate on media control and advance the cause of media law reform.
Enactment of Freedom of Information Laws
We call upon the Parliament to enact a Freedom of Information Act at the federal level to the effect that will repeal the Official Secrets Act and ensure maximum access of the public to information related to public interests. At the state level, the state governments – both BN and PR – should also enact their own Freedom of Information Enactment to ensure maximum disclosure of public information within the state’s jurisdiction, in complement to or in the absence of the federal Freedom of Information Act. Only with legal guarantee to freedom of information that corruptions may be defeated and Malaysians may hope to enjoy good governance.