On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Media rules must change in Info Age

Over a meal of nasi 
briyani, Pak Lah exchanged views with the  editors on the technological changes taking
place in  the media.

His statements are timely as Malaysian journalists  will join their counterparts  in celebrating World Press  Freedom Day on May 3.

Some people will cynically say that there is nothing to celebrate, given
the  state of affairs of the Malaysian

Exactly one year ago, 581  journalists
presented a petition to Abdullah calling 
for an end to publishing restrictions.

Nothing has happened as  the gamut of
laws facing  the industry has
remained.  Certainly, none of the
journalists who put their names  on the
memorandum (myself included) expected 
Pak Lah to carry out swift 

As writers, we certainly  want the press
to be less  regimented. It is not just
a  concern of Malaysian reporters but
practitioners of  the trade

In Malaysia, race and religion have always been taboo subjects for the
local  media. Not many young reporters
would remember  the racial temperatures
of  1969 and 1987, but for  newsmen who had to covered these dark events
in  the streets, they are likely  to adopt a more conservative and cautious

Many will even agree  that some media
restrictions are still needed to ensure a sense of responsibility.

Self-censorship is exercised sometimes because 
we strongly believe in the  need
to be moderate and  considerate in a
multi-ethnic country.

It is easy to speak volumes about press freedom 
but we should not ignore  the need
for people to live  peacefully.

Even after over 42 years  of
independence, one can  still detect
racial and religious insensitivity in certain sections of the media.

There are publications  which provide an
unwarranted slant to certain social and political issue.

But the baggages of history will surely go away 
one day. Similarly, many of  the
laws affecting the industry will eventually be 

The requirement for  printing permits,
for example, would be less relevant as more news sites are  set up on the Internet.

Publications which are  banned will
merely turn to  cyberspace. With
audio-visual capabilities, these 
websites will become more 

The fact remains that a  media which is
perceived  to be biased will be
unable  to convey its message to  the people. Publications  which lose their credibility  will be shunned by readers.

That aside, the newsmen's role will change 
sharply over the coming  years.
They can no longer  be mere reporters of
news  but will become information

While Malaysians will  expect information
to be  made available faster,  newsmen will have to grapple with new tools
for their  trade.

Breaking news is now  flashed on cellular
phones  while palm-PC users can  download online editions to  read.

None of these tools require a permit from the authorities. In fact, no
censorship is possible.

But tomorrow's news  will mean nothing if
the  content is not well-received by the
public. Some  politicians have the
impression that mainstream  newspapers
will lose out to  the Internet for
allegedly  failing to provide sufficient
opposition coverage.

The fact is that not everyone wants to read political news. A good newspaper or
news website caters  to all

The biggest demand  from readers isn't
political  news but business news.  They want instant updates  on stock prices, analysis  and performances of oversea bourses. That is
the reality.

Local media is not the  only one being
questioned  and criticised.

Malaysians are asking  regional
publications why  they constantly quote
politicians who lost in the elections. Some politicians  have never been elected  but unshamedly claim to be  the people's voice.

The NGOs, run by a  handful of people,
make  the same claim. Most are  partisan but put up a neutrl  front.

Some publications and  websites say they
are independent and objective, but  their
content is clearly 

It has not stopped them  from making wild
accusations and spreading rumours, the lastest being  Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir  Mohamad falling from a  horse in Argentina. Yet  some citizens say these reformasi websites
are reliable.

While most of us do not  share their
stand, we subscribe to the belief that minority views have a place  in a democracy.

The growth of press  freedom is essential
in a  democracy. It may not necessary
promote economic  development, as
reflected  in the Indian and
Filipino  experiences, but the
availability of accurate information is a necessity in a  modern nation.

The Government may  have the best
intentions in  safeguarding stability
and  development when drawing up laws. A
country in  chaos cannot be
beneficial  to newspapers. If the economy
suffers, newspaper  revenue will drop due
to  falling circulation and  scarce advertisements.

Still, the political and  technological
changes taking place in Malaysia call 
for a re-look at laws like  the
Printing Presses and  Publications Act
1984 and  the Official Secrets Act  1972.

Amendments to relax  these existing laws,
even if  they are not immediately  repealed, will strengthen  the press environment in  this country.

For a start, a media  council comprising
media  practitioners, academicians,
retired judges and  government
representatives could be formed to  study
these laws and their  relevance in the
information technology age.