Press Freedom In Malaysia - A Review
  1998 World Press Freedom Review
   Media freedom has always been opposed by the 18 year-old government of Malaysian Prime Minister,    Mahatir Mohamad. On the basis of the theory that human rights and media openness should not be driven solely by Western standards of what constitute freedom of expression, but should be revised to reflect Asian values, the media is treated as an instrument of power
and required to back governmental    policies. Prime Minister Mahatir has described Westerners’ notion of a free press as "freedom to tell  lies" and said that Western media coverage was more inclined toward attracting readers without any    consideration of implications on society.

   The media situation further deteriorated in 1998 as the collapse of the economy and the increasing  popularity of Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim seemed to threaten Mahatir’s position. Pre-empting any challenge to his leadership, Mahatir sacked Ibrahim and tightened the control of local and foreign  media in Malaysia. "If the media indulges in activities that
threaten political stability or national unity, we will come down hard regardless of whether they are local or foreign," declared Deputy Information Minister Suleiman Mohamad on July 26. He also added that "the local media is kept in check with the   Internal Security Act (ISA)," which allows officials to arrest suspects without trial, and that the  government would not hesitate to "black out" foreign news reports that portray the country in a negative  light. Several members of Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad’s government, including the Prime Minister himself, made statements criticising local and foreign media for not
reporting fairly on the economic situation.

   The Malaysian press is hamstrung by strict licensing regulations and a pattern of ownership that gives the ruling UMNO party overwhelming control of the popular press. The result has been a media culture  largely marked by self-censorship and what some Malaysian journalists call a "speak no evil" approach  to sensitive issues. As local journalists, who don’t want to threaten
their job security in a time when the economy is collapsing and jobs become more and more scarce, tend to strictly follow the directives of  their editors, the government seeks any possible way to keep control of foreign journalists.

   On August 9, Information Minister Mohamed Rahmat announced that he plans to impose new rules and restrictions that would allow the government to more closely monitor the movements of foreign journalists in the country. Foreign journalists working in Malaysia are already required to register with the Home Ministry in order to obtain a work permit. They also must
provide the Information Ministry with details about their personal and professional background, as well as information about their employer, before obtaining a press pass. While the minister did not reveal the specifics of his proposal, he did  make his intentions clear by saying, "If there is negative and bad news, we will then know who is  responsible...We are not preventing them, but we want to know who they are, so that we can resolve any problems that arise." Rahmat also criticised Malaysians who work for the foreign press, accusing them of disloyalty and warning them "not to resort to slanting reports or write highly speculative reports just to  please their employer."

   Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, removed from office by Mahatir on  September 2, was arrested a few days later, after leading some 30,000 angry demonstrators in a rare display of public outrage, shouting for Mahatir to step down and pressing for political reforms. On September 21, broadcasts of Malaysian riots in support of Anwar made
by several TV broadcasters,  including BBC (Great Britain), ABC (Australia) and TVNZ (New Zealand), were jammed for several  hours. Malaysian authorities said that they will allow the free flow of information if it is done in a "proper manner." The broadcast showed Malaysian riot police repeatedly firing water cannon and tear gas at several thousand demonstrators. Two days later Mohamed Rahmat, Minister of Information, declared that foreign journalists would not be allowed to use government
facilities to transmit news and visual  images judged to be detrimental to the country.

   As the local media is tightly controlled and streets protests are banned, Anwar’s supporters turned to cyberspace to give his side of the story and to spread word of planned protest. The government, however, immediately took measures to warn dissidents not to use the Internet to stir up strife. Investigations aided by the Malaysian Institute of Microelectronics
Systems (Mimos), an Internet Service  Provider, led to the arrest, under the Internal Security Act, of four people in August who were charged    with spreading rumours of rioting on the Internet. On October 5, Malaysian police was reported to have set up an Internet unit to monitor sites and newsgroups which have been organising protests against the jailing of Anwar. The national Bernama news agency said that the unit was set up on the instructions of Prime Minister Mahatir and its mission was to watch for information and messages which could affect  public security. Opposition groups are worried that the authorities’ use of Internet service providers to track down the suspects shows a repressive attitude to one of the country’s few arenas for free   discussion and debate.

   Two leading Malaysian editors resigned in June under political pressure by the UMNO ruling party, after Mahatir criticised local media for "negative" and "sensational" reporting of problems at Kuala Lumpur’s new airport.

   Johan Jaafar, who oversees the leading Malay-language daily newspaper Utusan Malaysia, submitted his resignation on July 14. Malaysian journalists say that recent reports in Utusan Malaysia about severe operational problems at Malaysia’s new airport have proven embarrassing to some UMNO party leaders. And the newspaper is perceived to have sided with Deputy
Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim in its coverage of intra-party struggles over political and economic reform. The paper is part of the Utusan    Melayu Bhd. group, whose stock is largely owned by UMNO.

   Just days after Jaafar stepped down from his post, Ahmad Nazri Abdullah, group editor of Malaysia’s largest selling daily, Berita Harian, followed suit. Abdullah’s resignation on July 18 prompted parliamentary opposition leader Lim Kit Siang to warn of a crackdown on the local media, charging that the two editors were forced to resign for trying "to promote greater space for independent, investigative, and critical journalism." Prime Minister Mahatir denied reports of a clampdown on the country’s media and refuted allegations that the resignation of the two leading editors was due to political pressure.

   Nasiruddin Ali, director of the publishing firm Karya One, which published four magazing linked to a banned Islamic sect, is still in prison since May 1996. The charges against Nasiruddin have never been made public. The civil unrest following Anwar’s arrest has brought two radically different visions of the media’s role    into open conflict. On one side are foreign news organisations, used to open access, uneasy with censorship and hungry for public debate. On the other are government officials determined to protect    the nation against "enemies." It is an old debate, embodied in the concept of the New World Information  Order, which tends to be questioned when two vastly different cultures come face to face.

The arrest of Anwar Ibrahim and the demonstrations that ensued have again exposed the cultural divide. In one corner are Malaysia’s leaders, saying that the media has a role in helping to build a nation state that is only 41 years old and whose economy is still developing; as Information Minister Mohamed said, journalists are first and foremost Malaysians and should refrain from filing negative stories that damage    their own country. In the other corner are rights activists, who accuse
Malaysia’s government of holding  the press to ransom through state ownership, licenses and ownership by parties in Mahatir’s ruling  coalition.

   The reality remains that Mahatir, upholding supposed Asian and Malaysian values and criticising Western double standard, has held power for 18 years, suppressing any opposition and blocking the expression of dissent and the free flow of  information.

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