The press, oppressed

Media freedom curtailed as the prime minister comes under pressure to perform

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We should have seen this coming. When the police hauled up Al Jazeera staffers as part of a sedition probe into a documentary on the country’s treatment of migrant workers during the height of the Covid-19 crisis last year, press freedom and reform was never on Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s to-do list.

Last week Malaysians were reminded about this fact after Malaysiakini was found guilty of contempt by the Federal Court and fined RM500,000 over published comments deemed offensive to the judiciary.

While the news portal was successful in raising funds to pay the fine, it is worth noting that suit was brought against it by Attorney-General Idrus Harun, who serves at the beck and call of the prime minister.

If the guilty conviction wasn’t enough, the police on Monday opened investigation papers against Malaysiakini editor-in-chief Steven Gan and Klang MP Charles Santiago over comments following the verdict.

These instances, while not uncommon, provide a glimpse of the risks that journalists bear upon themselves should they decide to play check and balance against any government, more so Muhyiddin’s.

The challenges are plenty. At the time of writing some claim they have received incessant calls and text messages from certain ministry officials, questioning them over stories they wrote.

One said he received text messages enquiring on the nature of his postings and articles because they garnered negative reactions on social media while another has been served a letter of demand over a story that involved public funds.

Certain political operators in Putrajaya are known to keep watch over certain journalists, blacklisting a few in the process.

Many fear crossing swords with such shadowy figures as triggering their wrath could mean work being impeded or, worse, totally cut off from official press business. Even simple processes, such as applying for press passes, may be delayed for reasons unknown.

As it is, only so-called official media are granted unfettered access to pressers, including those held in parliament. The excuse being the pandemic but, in reality, these organisations are known to be acquiescent to their political masters. The quintessential yes-men.

Other past practices, rampant during Barisan Nasional (BN) rule, remain or have seen a resurgence albeit for the worse. Ministers and chairmen of various agencies have blocked journalists from social media or any press matters.

Some have been blacklisted by the government, denying them access to official channels for stories, while others believe that their phones have been tapped. The assumption is that each reporter has a file with the Special Branch.

Advertising revenue also ebbs and flows depending how well a news portal’s owner and editors cosy up to certain powerful figures. Some have already received threats of funding cuts from various corporations while others have editorially compromised to make a quick buck or two.

Kickbacks and favours remain rampant in some media houses, where journalists or newsrooms are paid princely sums for hatchet jobs, ranging from sullying the image of a certain personality to shoring up support for questionable characters.

Then there is the alphabet soup of draconian laws that can charge a journalist for a variety of grievances while source protection remains non-existent. As the country is under emergency, the government has wider powers to prosecute journalists for a litany of wrongs under an ordinance that is vaguely worded. What is “economic sabotage” anyway?

Not forgetting the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), the regulator that monitors websites and can order the removal of material considered provocative or subversive.

A 2012 amendment to the 1950 Evidence Act holds owners and editors of websites, providers of web-hosting services, and owners of computers or mobile devices accountable for information published through their services or property. This proved pivotal in incriminating Malaysiakini.

Muhyiddin is coming down hard on the media because he is hard-pressed to deliver as the August deadline for when the emergency is lifted is nearing, said James Chin of the University of Tasmania.

“He is worried. All that he has tried to put in place, from the tabling of this year’s budget to the management of the entire Covid crisis, despite the vaccine rollout programme, is not working properly.”

This in turn, Chin added, has led to not only doubts over capabilities of key officials in Putrajaya, including the prime minister’s right-hand man, Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Tengku Aziz, but also “a general consensus that’s slowly building that this emergency, rather than helping to deal with the coronavirus is meant to save Muhyiddin politically.

“The other way of looking at this is that the crackdown on the media would allow him to try and control the narrative as we head to the possible lifting of the emergency.”

When Muhyiddin became Malaysia’s leader through a coup, which marked the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, he took over a country hobbling towards reforms, including that of press freedom.

While insiders claim that some PH ministers never truly grasped the meaning of independent media, the general sentiment then, especially from journalists, was a sense of reduced political pressure and harassment.

Reporters Without Borders (RWB), a watchdog, ranked Malaysia 101 out of 180 countries in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, noting that the country registered the biggest increase on the back of regime change through elections.

Malaysia’s score dropped by 3.62 points to 33.12 in 2020, with the lower score indicating greater press freedom.

RWB went on to comment that the country’s press freedom received a breath of “fresh air” after the surprising defeat of then prime minister Najib Razak’s ruling BN coalition in the 14th general election.

All those gains are now undone. A year later, after the so-called Sheraton Move, the prime minister is despised and pressed on all fronts. His political allies in Umno have been rumoured to express interest in severing ties with him and his coalition, Perikatan Nasional.

Concerns over the economy, from unemployment to the country’s inability to compete with its regional peers as an investment hub, have made the bulk of the local news flow the past few weeks.

Such desperation even led more than a hundred residents in the Wangsa Maju federal constituency to write in to the Agong yesterday, begging him to shorten the emergency, citing pandemic-induced financial difficulties as well as political instability.

The international community is also watching. Aside from the Malaysiakini conviction, Putrajaya failed to properly manage the situation with the 1,200 undocumented Myanmar nationals, which includes asylum-seekers.

Instead, the Immigration Department deported 1,086 of them yesterday, despite the Kuala Lumpur High Court allowing a temporary stay, and the opposition urging Putrajaya to review the controversial plan after being informed that children risk being separated from their parents.

Amnesty International, among the plaintiffs, called the move “inhumane and devastating”, adding it will leave the decision to file an application for committal proceedings to its lawyers as possible contempt of court had been raised.

Under such circumstances, Malaysian journalists should expect a more hostile environment, and they can only do one of two things: they can either continue playing that check and balance fully aware of the risks or they can compromise.

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