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
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
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
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
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.