Stop the crackdown: Promote media sustainability and independence

CONCERNED with the status of media freedom in Malaysia and the related trend of limiting access, harassment and intimidation against media by the authorities, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), Gerakan Media Merdeka (GERAMM) and the National Union of Journalists Malaysia (NUJM) have today submitted a memorandum to the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia.

The three organisations said they were alarmed with Malaysia’s deterioration in the Reporters without Border’s (RSF) annual press freedom index where the country’s press freedom index plunged 18 places to 119 (out of 180 countries ranked) just a year after recording one of its best ranking at the 101st spot.

“The recent rating comes as no surprise for several reasons as the political turmoil since the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition took power in March 2020 has acted as barriers to the media taking on its role independently,” CIJ, GERAMM and NUJM pointed out.

“Further, there is an ongoing crackdown on journalists and media agencies for their reporting, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, and specifically using repressive laws that continue to stifle press freedom.”

The memorandum addressed five critical issues and their chilling effect on media freedom in Malaysia:

  • Economic viability of the media: Journalists have been severely impacted by the closure or downsizing of many media companies. A total of 400 journalists had lost their jobs in the past year.

A spate of retrenchments since March 2020, when the first movement control order (MCO) was announced, also resulted in NUJM’s membership from eight mainstream Malaysian newspapers, shrinking from about 1,000 to only about 500 as of last month.

  • Health and safety of media: The Government has failed to prioritise media’s health and safety protection. This is evident on the fact that media to date has yet to be vaccinated.

The Government had only announced on April 27 that 1,500 media personnel will be prioritised for vaccination in May 2021. This only came about when the Government came under fire for its lack of transparency in rolling out vaccines for media as one media outlet had allegedly managed to circumvent the system by getting its personnel vaccinated.

  • Restrictions of access for reporting: Media conferences after high-level briefings by senior ministers continue to be restricted to only “official” state-owned media. This sidelines more independent media, including news portals which operate exclusively online which are often more critical of the state and its policies.
  • Media crackdowns: Last year saw several journalists and media agencies investigated, harassed and subjected to legal action by the state for their critical reporting, dissenting views or platform.

High-profile cases include that of former South China Morning Post (SCMP) correspondent Tashny Sukumaran, CodeBlue editor-In-Chief Boo Su-Lyn, Malaysiakini and its editor-in-chief, Stevan Gan, Gerakbudaya and the authors of “Rebirth” and Al Jazeera.

  • Use of repressive laws to silence media: Various repressive and archaic laws were used against the media and journalists last year.

These laws include Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia (CMA) Act 1998; the Sedition Act 1948; Section 504 of the Penal Code; Section 505 of the Penal Code; and the Printing Presses and Publications (PPPA) Act 1984. Other laws include Section 203A of the Penal Code; and Section 114A of the Evidence Act 1950.

Hence, CIJ, GERAMM and NUJM demanded the following from the Government:

#1 Establish a Media Resilience Fund to support and sustain the livelihood, practices and operations of media personnel during COVID-19 pandemic: The fund can offer small grants for individuals or small media organisations to offset or recoup financial losses or to adapt their practices and explore new operating models in this time of disruption and economic crisis.

#2 Expedite and guarantee equal access to vaccination for media personnel: The Government must proceed with the vaccination for media by May 2021 through an equal and transparent process of registration of all journalists and crew at the frontline.

#3 Guarantee free and equal access to all media, regardless of their affiliation, medium of practice or geographical locations: There shall be no arbitrary or discriminatory restrictions of access to government press conferences or events as well as to any upcoming state initiatives, including but not limited to parliament and state assembly sittings, open court and public hearings. COVID-19 must not be used as an excuse to undermine media access.

#4 Drop all investigations and stop all acts of intimidation and adverse actions against the media and respective journalists

#5 Place an immediate moratorium on the use of repressive laws and the state to adopt necessary plans, without delay, to review and amend or repeal these laws, including Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998; the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984; the Sedition Act 1948; and the Official Secrets Act 1972, among others, and;

#6 Move ahead with the establishment of the Malaysian Media Council as a transparent and independent self-regulatory body for the industry: Having a media council in place will avoid the State and its agencies from becoming the sole arbiter of truth or arbitrarily censoring or punishing the media for reporting that is critical of the state. – May 3, 2021

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