Self-censorship of media a result of draconian laws

Special Article: Self-censorship of media a result of draconian laws
Published by Malaysia Today
Tuesday, 26 May 2009 16:40

During the 2009 Bloggers United Malaysia (BUM) gathering on 16 May, the fourth Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, claimed no responsibility for controlling the media during his time. CIJ thinks that it was quite a farce.

The Malaysian mainstream newsrooms practice self-censorship and if that wasn’t good enough, there would be host of legislative and political interferences to make sure the public got a certain kind of information. Well packaged to keep out the most critical bits and sweet enough for the powers that be to feel comfortable in their seats. And to oblige the print media and the broadcasters their annual licences.
This is the story that has dominated the Malaysian media scene since the nation got its independence. So, when the fourth Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, who decided reluctantly his time was up in 2003, claimed no responsibility for controlling the media during his time, it was quite a farce. Speaking at the 2009 Bloggers United Malaysia (BUM) gathering on 16 May, he blamed the editors’ tendency to flatter him during his tenure as prime minister from 1981-2003. In a way, he lamented that his popularity became a sort of spell that disarmed the media’s supposed critical function.

No one would deny Dr. Mahathir’s popularity, given his achievement in modernising Malaysia as well as how this achievement was framed by the media. So it could possibly came as a shock to the media themselves that now the  ex-PM is critical of those which took the pains to over-adulate him. It took not a light amount of effort by the media to be spellbound by Dr. M. The media has to put up a front that Dr. M’s ingenious ways is the only truth worth reporting. They have to omit mentioning, though it’s a common knowledge, that the spell itself comes with several whips of different level of lethality. The whips go by the name of Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA), Official Secrets Act (OSA), Sedition Act and more. These whips Dr. Mahathir took great care to enhance by frist, removing judicial review in 1984, from the PPPA, thus augmenting the Home Affairs Minister discretion in regulating the press and secondly, introducing a mandatory one-year jail term upon conviction in the OSA in 1986, and another amendment in 1995 to expand the scope of government secrets.

Despite these, the former Prime Minister insisted that he did not control the media by harassing them through direct instructions. He didn’t need to, the laws were used to the fullest during and after his time. In the 1987 Operasi Lallang, 106 political activists, educationists, and civil rights activists were detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA), licences for The Star, Watan and Sin Chew Jit Poh were revoked, and journalists were called in for police questioning. Media organizations that were spared took on board as many as they could journalists who lost their jobs as the result of the pulling back of licenses, but many prominent journalists left the profession or the country due to job insecurity and harassment by the police.

Mahathir’s Ops Lallang further entrenched the control of  newsroom and the practice of self-censorship that were introduced both during the British rule and in the early years of Independence. The later 1980s was a significant time that represented the erosion of the integrity of the media, accompanied by the weakening of the judiciary. As a result the mainstream media have perfected the art of singing praises to a government that insists on using these oppressive laws no matter how “loyal” the media organisations have become of the political master.

Twenty-two years in the office is a lot of time for Dr. M to tell the media that he had had enough of praises. There is no doubt the media, having succumbed to his spell, would heed his advice to change. But in 1996, seven years before his retirement, in an address to journalists at the annual Malaysian Press Institute function, Dr Mahathir dismissed the notion of free press and asked, rhetorically, “Are we ashamed that there is no freedom of the press in this country? Do we, forever, have to apologise to the rest of the world for our laws?” By 1999-2000, during the Reformasi period, half a dozen publications such as Esklusif, Detik and Al-Wasilah- those who refused to be spellbound- were banned under the PPPA. The message that reverberated throughout the media scene was clear – love Mahathir or else..

So, no matter how much the story is spun, the fact remains that self-censorship is a result of the use and abuse of laws and political powers to keep the media in check.  But Mahathir is not the only one to blame. As long as the laws are as they are today, then any Prime Minister has at his or her disposal the most effective tools to control the media and the public. Mahathir’s successors have demonstrated their wilingness to arrest and charge individuals under the PPPA, OSA, ISA, the Sedition Act and even the Communications and Multimedia Act as and when they feel their positions threatened.

But there’s one force that can put a stop to the ridiculous claims of how there is no control or censorship of the media, and that is the media itself. The striking silence from editors and journalists from the mainstream media is a testimony that the media is what it is today only because of self-censorship and that it had nothing to do with the political powers. Is there no one, worth his or her salt, angered enough to challenge this accusation and to set the record straight?

If that is so, then the responsibility is in the hands of the conscientious citizen who must demand for what is rightfully ours – a free media environment where there is meaningful plurality and diversity in the information we get and the right for us to have access to equal spaces for expression.

Gayathry Venkiteswaran

Executive Director

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