Some people are ‘freer’ than others – in calling for a free and responsible press

The Star yesterday (May 4th) reported the responses of politicians from both sides of the political divide regarding press freedom in Malaysia in conjunction with the World Press Freedom Day that fell on May 3rd.


Opposition leaders were in unison in their call for the repeal of the undemocratic Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA), and in the same breath urged for the enactment of a Freedom of Information Act.  


Two politicians from the Barisan Nasional, in particular Gerakan acting president Dr Koh Tsu Koon and Deputy Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin, were also of the opinion that the provision within the PPPA that compels the licensing of regular publications should be removed.


But some people, it seems, are more comfortable and confident than others when it comes to thinking about free and responsible press.


What stuck out like a sore thumb in this issue was the indefatigable Nazri Aziz, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department.


Nazri said that the PPPA was necessary because Malaysia had a multiracial population. He assumed that extremist views would prevail if such freedom (i.e. doing away with the licensing provision in the PPPA) were to be put in place in Malaysian journalism. As in the past, this ‘argument’ is a convenient excuse to restrict journalists and the press. There is of course the danger of extremist views in any society, but it is even dangerous if such views are left unchallenged and un-debated by the moderates in society. Besides, an opinion or grievance that has been suppressed, and left unattended to (because of, say, media and/or government neglect), over time can transform into something unpalatable, if not dangerous.


Nazri also insisted that ‘the problem with having more freedom was that it would become difficult to determine limits.’ He added that it would be better that the government prescribed the parameters so that nobody ‘crosses the line’. It needs to be reiterated here: what many media activists and professionals have been asking for all this while is not absolute press freedom, if at all this is possible, but a free and responsible press. Besides, limits there are as there are other laws, such as defamation law, that help to ensure that certain measure of decorum and responsibility is respected within the journalistic fraternity and members of the general public.


What can be, and has been, problematic is when the (federal) government gives itself the power to unilaterally determine ‘the line’ via certain questionable laws such as the PPPA and Official Secrets Act to the extent that certain groups of citizens are left to feel marginalised, disenfranchised and displaced.  


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