Media freedom essential to a functioning democracy

Since Independence – and even when we were under the British rule – the press (or now the media as we are so inclined to call the journalistic mass media) has never been free in Malaysia.

Despite the Government’s anti-West propaganda, it seems to inherit many of the negative aspects of the former colonial master’s approach towards democracy and freedom. Hence, Malaysia continues to have the Internal Security Act, Official Secrets Act, Sedition Act, Printing Presses and Publications Act and many more laws that restrict freedom of expression. 

Today, the mainstream media – both print and electronic media – are either directly or indirectly controlled by the Barisan Nasional government. It became worse when (Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad took over the government. His practice was simple – all media must serve the interest of the government. His argument is based on the notion that the government knows best.

When his successor (Tun) Abdullah Ahmad Badawi took over, there was an attempt to allow the media to have a breathing space. A god move but it also opened up a can of worms. Dr Mahathir came back with a vengeance to attack his own nominated successor. The irony was that Dr Mahathir claimed there was no freedom of the press under Abdullah.

Now that Datuk Seri Najib Razak is Prime Minister, things have gone from bad to worse. The Malay press especially Utusan Malaysia and some TV stations particularly TV3 have been playing up racial sentiments, which can be seen as attempts to pit Malaysians against Malaysians, based on the never-resolved ethnic and religious problems.

When the police acted (and are still acting) in a way that was biased and unfair, the mainstream media sheepishly condoned such acts. Some press, predictably Utusan, even supported and encouraged such ultra vires moves.

Yet there is a glimmer of hope. Yes, sad to say, it’s still only a glimmer. The alternative media. No, it’s not weekly publications or magazines – these are still bound by unfair and undemocratic laws.

We are talking about the internet. But then again, we know the limitation of the medium. Even the well-known blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin is still on the run from law due to pressure by all sectors of the government.

The mainstream media have been successful over the past five decades in influencing the people, in particular that the Barisan Nasional government, especially Umno, owns everything in the country including the media.

It may not be a difficult task to address and probe further into the issue of the media and its role in Malaysia. But it will not be an easy task to find the best possible ways for the media to function properly as they should be in a truly democratic society. We need to know and understand the actual power of the state, the citizens’ responses and reactions, as well as the hegemony of it all.

Of course we must never give in easily to pressures or simply give up if we really want to do something serious about having a truly functioning fair and democratic media in Malaysia. There’s always a glimmer of hope.

Opening speech by Liew Chin Tong, DAP MP for Bukit Bendera, on 9th June 2009 at Han Chiang College Media Forum 2009 “Rethinking the roles of media: a Malaysian context”

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