Virtual Democracy in Malaysia: `... the Internet Has Helped Put Press Freedom on the Front Burner.' (International Journalism)

By Gan, Steven | Nieman Reports, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Virtual Democracy in Malaysia: `... the Internet Has Helped Put Press Freedom on the Front Burner.' (International Journalism)


Gan, Steven, Nieman Reports


Malaysia is a democracy. We have freedom of speech, but no freedom after speech. There is freedom of movement, but no freedom of assembly. We have a plethora of publications--about a dozen or so newspapers in four different languages--but we don't have a free press.

Clearly, the government had a complete monopoly on the distribution of information until the emergence of the Internet. But while this technology has enabled us to finally break through the government's barriers, we are not near breaking its monopoly on power. The only advantage we have as online journalists over the traditional media in Malaysia is that our online publication Malaysiakini (malaysiakini.com) does not need to apply for a publication license. Indeed, we still must deal with many other restrictive laws that keep the traditional media in check. And the number of laws that directly and indirectly impinge on press freedoms in Malaysia is not five, nor 10, but 35.

For example, under the Official Secrets Act (OSA), almost all government documents can be labeled "State Secret" and thus not be eligible for release to the public. The OSA effectively inhibits civil servants from giving information, including those not strictly categorized as secret, for fear of retribution or demotion or, worse still, out of fear of being punished with a mandatory jail sentence. In addition, there is the Internal Security Act, which allows detention without trial, and a number of journalists have been arrested under this draconian law. Its threat casts an ominous shadow on the work done by all journalists.

But the most intrusive of all laws, as far as the journalists are concerned, is the Printing Presses and Publications Act. It provides the government the right to suspend or revoke printing and publishing permits. And its decision is not subject to review and cannot be challenged in court. The act also keeps the press on a short leash by requiring annual applications for all printing and publishing permits. In 1987, the licenses of three newspapers were revoked under this law in a sweeping crackdown on political dissent. The law also allows the government to fine or jail writers, editors, printers and publishers for spreading "false news." Recently, a number of anti-government publications ran afoul of the law. The independent weekly Eksklusif and pro-reform monthly magazines Detik and Al-Wasilah were banned, while the organ of opposition Islamic Party, Harakah, was punished with a reduction in its frequency from eight to two issues a month.

Given such a hostile environment, media organizations in Malaysia are, not surprisingly, obsessed with self-censorship. My personal experience, as part of an investigative team for The Sun, an English-language daily, offers an illustration of this. In 1995, working with two colleagues, I helped unearth the deaths of 59 detainees, mostly Bangladeshis, in an illegal immigration detention camp. They died of beriberi (a symptom of malnutrition) and typhoid, diseases that are easily preventable. We wrote that this was a case of criminal neglect on the part of the police who ran the camp. The story was spiked hours before it went to print.

When it became known that the paper was not going to run the story, the reporting team decided to hand the information over to Tenaganita, a non-governmental organization that supports migrant workers. It wasn't until Tenaganita exposed the deaths at a press conference--and these deaths were confirmed by the government--that the newspaper had the courage to run the story, but not without four revisions.

That was not the end of the story. The whistle blower, Tenaganita director Irene Fernandez, was subsequently arrested for spreading "false news" under the Printing Presses and Publications Act, a law originally used to muzzle the press. Those who wrote the story were interrogated by the police for more than three days. …

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