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Malaysia: Online Media to be Regulated Soon?

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak announced at the recent Malaysian Press Institute awards that amendments to the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 (PPPA) will be tabled in the Parliament soon. In addition to that, he also repeated his intent to regulate online media as the government cannot practise double standards when it comes to regulating the print and online media.

This announcement was made in conjunction with his speech to make reforms back in September 15, 2011 for Malaysia Day, wherein he promised to abolish the Internal Security Act 1960 (ISA), the Banishment Act (1959), and amend the PPPA as well as the Restricted Residence Act 1933:

Kajian semula komprehensif ini akan melibatkan Akta Kediaman Terhad 1933 dan Akta Mesin Cetak dan Penerbitan 1984 di mana prinsip pembaharuan tahunan akan dihapuskan dan digantikan dengan pengeluaran lesen sehingga dibatalkan.

A comprehensive review (of laws no longer relevant) will involve the Restricted Residence Act 1933 and the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, where the annual licences will be abolished and replaced with licences that will be issued until they are cancelled

However, this was met with skepticism, as pointed out by the Center for Independent Journalism, the “reforms” on the PPPA do not mean extending media freedom in Malaysia:

The government’s unreformed position when it comes to freedom of expression is reflected in its response to the Malaysiakini court challenge to the Home Ministry’s rejection of its application for a publishing permit. Deputy Home Minister Abu Seman Yusop in his affidavit-in-reply filed on Sept 12, 2011, said permits were a “privilege”, and the denial of permits cannot be equated to denial of the right to free speech. This position ignores the people’s right to information, especially those who do not have Internet access and are thus deprived of alternative, freer media that can afford a more critical perspective.

The Prime Minister also needs to clarify whether the government still plans to widen the scope of the PPPA to include online media, in apparent contradiction to its much-touted commitment to Internet freedom.

Some of the current provisions that curbs freedom of speech and expression found in the PPPA includes:

1. Under Section 5 of the PPPA, the Malaysian government still holds power over permits to publish newspapers. The Home Minister has sole power to grant or deny applications, revoke permits which have been issued (which according to the PM’s announcement will not have to be renewed annually), and set conditions before issuing them. There is no recourse to judicial review of the Home Minister’s decisions regarding the permits.

2. Under Section 3 of the PPPA, the Home Minister controls the licences to use printing presses.

3. Under Section 7 of the PPPA, the Home Ministry controls all publications (defined as books, articles, music, photographs, caricatures, reports, notes etc) in the country and can issue bans on those it deems “undesirable”.

Under the current context of law, the online media is not included under the PPPA, thus giving it more freedom to be critical and analyse the government's policies and announcements, much to the chagrin of the Ministers and politicians.

Aneesa Alphonsus, a Free Malaysia Today journalist, wrote that it is impossible to regulate the online media the way the government does to traditional media:

The misguided would continue to think of it as still being “the Internet” – another piece of technology, another channel that can and should be subjected to regulation.

Oddly, and with no intention of romanticising it, online media is in fact the de-regulation, or perhaps re-regulation, of traditional media.

By turning the existing power structures of public representation on its head – anyone with an internet connection now has a voice – online media assumed the people-centric role that traditional media has left behind.

Has this always been a good thing? There will always be those who take their new-found liberty for granted.

But to focus our laws on addressing these isolated incidents is to miss the bigger picture about what online media really stands for – a rebalancing of the way modern society has worked in terms of public representation

Some took to Twitter to voice their views on online media regulation:

@napiez: Dear @NajibRazak the online media doesnt need regulation. It's mainstream media that needs de-regulation

@annuarkhairi: Let's see what Tun M has to say about this. In a way he guaranteed regulation free online media during the MSC days.

@krybabe: Online media aside, MSM has stepped up to the plate – self regulation, code of ethics, MPC. Now ABOLISH PPPA & STOP threatening them alrdy

@hanimomo: Maybe the regulation of online media will help curb unsubstianted claims and vicious slanders?

@ssathyao1: wat is problem with our PM wanna regulate online media so that BE END can ctrl the media..freedom of speech only exist in msia thru online

@JBoey: @smellykatemoss they can regulate all they want but the online media will always be around and users will always find a way !

@vonHazrul: Anyone who thinks it's a grand idea to regulate online media should be patted on his back. With a shovel.

But until the proposed new law or amendments to PPPA is tabled on the Parliament, which is now in session, there's only speculation on whether this regulation is a sign of progression or regression in the media landscape of Malaysia.

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