Questions over the legitimacy and efficacy of the Malaysian government under Prime Minister Najib Razak are getting louder and more frequent. So are calls by his UMNO party members and ruling coalition lawmakers to censor the internet and place more controls on media.
The three-month suspension in July on two publications, The Edge Financial Daily and The Edge Weekly, failed to silence critics. These two business papers, owned by Datuk Tong Kooi Ong’s The Edge Media Group, were censured for their reportage on troubled state-owned investment company 1Malaysia Development Berhad.
Plans to curb internet
Now, the focus on social media and online news portals has intensified. The lawmakers and party members probably feel this is a viable solution to counter the rampant and vicious outpouring of anger and frustration in social media over the skyrocketing cost of living, allegations of misappropriation of funds and Najib’s leadership.
Recently, the newly appointed Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Seri Salleh Said Keruak said the government was mulling registration of news sites. Some feel that Malaysia may take a leaf out of Singapore’s book.
On June 1, 2013, news sites that carried Singapore news and had at least 50,000 unique visitors from Singapore each month over a two-month period were required to possess licence to operate. The sites were also required to put up a performance bond of S$50,000. Should the site post “prohibitive content”, the site will be issued a notice to purge that content within 24 hours and the bond can be forfeited.
Currently, news sites in Malaysia are neither required to be registered nor apply for permits like their print media counterparts. The MSC Malaysia Bill of Guarantees allows news portals and online publications to operate without these shackles.
The same minister recently instructed the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission to meet social media platform providers Facebook, Google and Twitter to enlist their help to stop the spread of false information and rumours in Malaysia. He said in his blog that although the platform owners had been cooperating with Malaysian authorities, the level of cooperation needed to be stepped up.
Another minister also recently said that the country was not ready to have a law allowing the public full or partial access to government documents and information. Two opposition-held state governments have the Freedom of Information Act.
The stand of the government cannot be clearer. There are plans to pile on further restrictions on social media and news sites while continuing to contain the actions of the mainstream media.
Media organisations in Malaysia are both directly or indirectly owned and controlled by political parties and their proxies. This includes the vernacular media and the media organisations in Sabah and Sarawak. It is this ownership intervention that needs to be restrained for there to be any kind of meaningful reform to media in Malaysia.
There is a need for a mechanism that compels mandatory disclosure of shareholders and to limit the stake of any organisation, be it political or corporate, on a media organisation.
This can automatically reduce incidences of political appointees helming the editorial or being in control of the top management of media organisations. These appointees will ensure the interests of the leaders are looked into.
It is a given that there is a changing of guard in the top editorial and management in media organisations once there is a change in party or country leadership.
There should also be a mechanism that prohibits media concentration. Presently, media owners in Malaysia are free to expand their businesses across media channels and are free to merge and acquire as many media organisations are they desire.
Media concentration and media appointees allow greater room for manipulation and distortion of information, with a strong propensity to serve the narrow interests of the owner and it does not matter who the owner is, whether it is the government or a corporation. These are the people who shape public opinion and deprive the public from access to multiple and differing sources of information, and by extension, depriving the public from making informed decisions.
In the present situation, the decision to publish or broadcast does not entirely lie on the newsworthiness of the story and neither do the editorial decision-makers adhere primarily to the principles of journalism when it comes to treatment of news or the selection of stories for publication. Owners have exclusivity over the news content and journalists surrender their rights over their stories.
Malaysia already has a barrelful of laws concerning media and freedom of expression but these laws are generally restrictive in nature. What Malaysia needs is the instating of laws that protect the media and removal of laws that do not.
Deregulation is sometimes cited as the only solution for Malaysia. This will open the media industry to foreign ownership but it does not offer a guarantee that there will be media freedom. As long as non-formal controls on the media in the form of media owners flexing their muscles in the newsroom still exist, the media is no freer than it was under state control and ownership.
It is only when media ownership is not concentrated and transparency in ownership, will there be true reforms in the media in Malaysia.