On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Time to review press laws

The Prime Minister has made positive moves in the judiciary and in the fight against corruption. He cannot allow this opportunity to slip by; he must now look at the changes taking place in the media.

Malaysia can never be the same again after the March 8 political tsunami. The people have now realised the power that they have in their hands. They have spoken out loudly for the changes they want.

They have expressed their unhappiness at the things which they found are not right in this country. The mainstream media is certainly one of them, and this newspaper is no exception.

As Bernama journalist Datuk Azman Ujang said, the people have spoken up about the government they want and the media that they want.

There will be certain sections of the political establishment and the media who refuse to change but they do so at their own peril. The demand for changes, particularly for more openness, in Malaysia is good for the country.

Understandably, there will be cynics who see the mainstream media as an unchanged leopard, or as chameleons to some, but many things have changed since the political tsunami. Those who initiate positive changes should be encouraged, not condemned or ridiculed.

The old ways of doing things have failed. Certainly, the old laws that tied down the press, too, have to go. They include restrictive laws like the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 and the annual renewal of publishing permits. Then, there are other related laws like the Internal Security Act and the Official Secrets Act.

On a more practical level, newspapers and journalists are being sued almost every other day. These legal actions take up a lot of time, and certainly money, and no business is as complicated as the newspaper industry.

Journalists, and their owners, are on the firing line every day. From the establishment to the readers, who want to have a say over how the newspaper should be run. If politicians face the voters every four or five years, the media does it every day, and that’s good for an active democracy.

For the print media, which still dominates the Malaysian media scene in terms of readership and revenue, it now faces healthy competition from the Internet media, which has effectively neutered the powers of government.

Bloggers are no longer just posting their comments but are also breaking news on their blogs.

More and more, we will see the convergence of the old and new media, as both sides crosslink with each other.

But irrespective of the medium, journalists and bloggers share one thing in common: they want to see greater democratic space and one of them is the freedom of expression. Regardless of their political belief, this common principle is shared by everyone in the media.

Malaysian voters must demand the level of commitment from their elected representatives on press freedom. As we mark World Press Freedom Day, how many politicians have pledged their support for press freedom, either in a press statement or a post on their blogs over the past few days?

How many politicians, regardless of their parties, can tolerate dissent or critical opinions against them, even as they speak about the freedom of the media?

Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar has said that he would like to propose that the annual renewal of newspaper permits be waived. It should be repealed, but it’s an important first step.

We are not even sure Syed Hamid will have his way as there has been no response from other Cabinet members since he made the proposal. But Malaysians must push for it.

Likewise, Information Minister Datuk Ahmad Shabery Cheek must also remember that his job is to make information more accessible to Malaysians and not control it, as a freed press contributes to a healthy democracy.

Certainly, his job must not be to complain against newspapers, which the Government perceives to be unfair, at Cabinet meetings.

He has pressed the right buttons by allowing live telecast of question time at Parliament and even interviews with critical bloggers on RTM.

The Government may not agree with the views and even accuracy of some of these bloggers but, at least, they put their names and faces on their blogs.

Sad to say, some journalists and bloggers who made their identities known have found themselves exposed to libel and even harassment, in some cases.

Let’s not expect overnight changes but this is the time to demand that laws that stifle the freedom of expression must end.


Check out Wong Chun Wai's blog at www.chunwai08.blogspot.com