Seeking faith in the Information Minister and the Press

In an interview conducted by Sunday Star’s Shahanaaz Habib and which was published today (titled ‘Putting his faith in a free press’), Information Minister Ahmad Shabery Cheek shared his sentiments about a free press. While there were things said by the Minister that are heart-warming, such as promoting the idea of a free public debate especially amongst politicians from both sides of the political divide, there were however other things that require quick responses here.


For instance, the Minister claimed that ‘There is no such thing as censorship or having to register or blocking out certain websites.’ That is not entirely true. Although there are no registration requirement for bloggers, blocking out of certain websites, and overt censorship, there were nonetheless attempts by the state to scare bloggers and discourage them from being critical of the government, which is a form of indirect censorship. This was illustrated by the experiences of the likes of Jeff Ooi, Raja Petra, Rocky’s Bru and Malaysiakini where laws such as the Sedition Act had been used against them.


Another point the Minister made was about the annual licensing under the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA): ‘The annual licences came after Operasi Lalang and it’s related to the (Team A -Team B) fight of Umno in 1987 and how that fight transformed to emerging Malay nationalism and the reaction from the Chinese. Then there was the closure of The Star, Sin Chew and Watan. After that they came up with annual licences.’


To be sure, the licensing requirement has been there in the Act prior to the Operasi Lalang. In fact, this licensing provision is an ugly colonial legacy that the ruling Alliance party inherited from the British after Malaya’s independence in 1957. What really happened after that political clampdown in 1987 was that the PPPA was further tightened where the decision of the Minister concerned is not subjected to judicial review and no reasons need to be given by the Minister for the rejection of a publishing permit application, or its revocation.


Shabery Cheek also defended the decision of the government to go after the newspapers that disclosed information pertaining to the findings of the Lingam video inquiry prior to the Cabinet’s decision to release the report to the public. He said,


I am not talking about protecting the government or those in power but protecting society as a whole. The government too has its own secrets for military and security reasons. The law is still the law. Freedom of expression doesn’t mean that you can do whatever you want. As far as the police report against newspaper is concerned, our worry is where the leak is coming from. Is it from investigative reporting, a leak from the government printer. We want to ensure that when there is sensitive information like military and security, it’s not going to fall (to the other people’s hands).  


I believe the inquiry report has nothing to do with military or security issues. So why, I wonder aloud, this drastic measure against the newspapers concerned? And, another thing that was alluded to here by the Information Minister and which needs our re-affirmation: nobody in his or her right mind has demanded an absolute freedom of expression (if at all possible) in Malaysia. What most civil society groups and journalists want is freedom of expression with responsibility, and by extension, a free and responsible press.


Finally, and this may not necessarily be directly related to what was said in the interview, there has been talk that the mainstream newspapers of late have been receptive to citizens’ demands for ethical and professional journalism and to discerning tastes of the post-March 8 readers, and thus there appear to be some space for alternative or dissenting voices in the newspapers.


But before we quickly jump for joy, it’s worth wondering whether this so-called opening up has also got to do with the possibility of certain dailies being caught, or consciously playing a role, in factional fighting within the ruling coalition where the contenders bring their battles into the realm of journalism and compete for editorial space in the newspapers with which they have close ties. If this is the case (of journalistic space partly prised open by factional fighting), then we certainly have a long way to go before we have true press freedom.


Additionally, while ordinary Malaysians may appreciate the gestures shown by Shabery Cheek as regards his favourable notion of a freer press, it must be said here that press freedom is often gained not by the rakyat hoping for a benign state to deliver it on a silver platter, but through years of struggle by all concerned parties (and these include newspaper editors, apart from committed journalists and civil society groups). Press freedom, if we need reminding, has to be fought for on all fronts through, of course, non-violent means.


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