Malaysia: Where is Press Freedom Heading Now?

Which country is the odd one out? Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Malaysia. Okay, let's say I am an obnoxious author who wants to insult your general country knowledge and you try to impress me with what you know. So Malaysia is economically more prosperous in South East Asia region, has better developed infrastructure, with substantially lower poverty rate, hmm… you may even say more democratic. But odd one out indeed, Malaysia is also languished way below Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia in press freedom ranking.

As recent development of press freedom in Malaysia unfolds, there are 3 key outcomes that can be observed:

1) Opposition parties will continue to fight the hardest through online media, after being granted limited access to print and electronic media

2)  Despite claims or evidence of supporting free media, government continues to hold the leverage in controlling media with information and printing acts.

3) Information censorship is ineffective as long as Internet remains uncensored. Rising number of Internet users and independent online contents will shape major opinions and put government under pressure.

When latest press freedom index was released earlier this year, opposition politicians were quick to react through their own online party information portals and personal blogs. Their online criticism intensified when government delayed decision in renewing opposition newsletters, and the banning of satirical political cartoons offered another opportunistic moment to fuel discontent and speculation through online media. A citizen, Lai responded:

The reason that government gave, believe it or not, was that ‘the contents  can influence the people to revolt against the leaders and government policies'… Cartoons can cause the people to revolt? Wow! Newly found weapon eh?

Interestingly, apart from online media strategy to criticize censorship, one opposition-led state actually took the unprecedented move to table the Freedom of Information bill to disclose information of public interests to every individual. Anil said while chiding a state government representative who rejected the bill:

Today is something of a historic day for the country in our quest for a more accountable society…

As independent news portals and citizen media contents proliferate in the country, Gopal Krishnan predicted:

Despite these heavy-handed responses to alternative voices, the government must surely appreciate the futility (not to mention the political consequences) of continuing to restrict the space for independent journalism and commentary to exist. As of 2009, it is estimated that over 65 percent of Malaysian homes were connected to the Internet. Beyond this, not only have we witnessed the mushrooming of various online news outlets and sources competing for our screen time, there has also been an explosion of online citizen journalism and social media, which has – among other things – truly created a new political reality in the country.

Well ultimately, press freedom is not something that the government or opposition parties whimsically decide, but it is about citizens who demand the truth and reporters who want to report the truth. Like Attan said:

Like I said, no matter what, we journalists lose – Najib's government suspends newspapers, Guan Eng (DAP party leader) bans them, and Anwar sues us.


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