Sunday, February 10, 2008

Executive persecution leads to decline of free expression in Malaysia

Free expression in Malaysia declines with increased executive interference, persecution
7 February 2008

Source: Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)

Malaysia experienced further deterioration in free expression in 2007, reports SEAPA's local partner, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), in its inaugural annual review released on 16 December 2007.

There was a "shrinking of media space and persecution of those who [sought] alternative modes of expression, namely through the Internet and street assemblies," noted CIJ Executive Director Gayathry Venkiteswaran in the foreword of the review, "Freedom of Expression: 2007 a year of persecutions".

Venkiteswaran said the worsening situation stemmed from the lack of openness in the administration, which has continued despite Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's pre-election promise of reform. Consequently, "[t]he lack of reform in this and other areas, such as the economy and religious practices, ignited people's desire to speak out using what little available means," she said.

Unfortunately, caught off-guard by the "sudden show of defiance" by the public - which is a rarity in Malaysia - the government chose to persecute protesters and dissenters, both online and in the streets, instead of addressing their concerns, Venkiteswaran said.

This executive will to control information was also imposed in newsrooms with increasing regularity, CIJ found, especially during tense times for the government. Bound by the repressive Printing Presses and Publications Act, whose licencing provision gives the minister a noose that can be tightened at whim on the press, editors were forced to comply with official directives, warnings and "advice" on how to do their job. The media were told not to cite political blogs and not to report about public assemblies - most notably, one which called for free and fair elections ahead of nationwide polls expected in early 2008 and another on the plight of the marginalised minority ethnic Indians.

"The Sun", a free English-language daily found only in major cities, that persevered in pushing the boundaries, was publicly rebuked twice by Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin for its independent coverage. The minister also harangued the international news network Al Jazeera over its live report on police violence at a rally, which contrasted sharply with local media coverage of the authorities' version of events.

Refuting the government's position that freedom of expression must be sacrificed for racial harmony in the multi-ethnic, multi-religious country dominated by Muslim Malays, CIJ pointed out that it is the opposite that holds true – i.e., free expression is the key to defusing the increasing polarisation among ethnic groups. "Any widening of misunderstanding among races is traceable to the limitation on freedom of expression," it said.

SEAPA supports CIJ's call for the abolition of repressive laws, the setting up of a Parliamentary Select Committee on media reform, and for greater public scrutiny of and engagement with the media.

For the full CIJ report, click here:

For SEAPA's country report on Malaysia, click here:

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