Candidates should be committed to freedom of expression and information

Saturday, 16 February 2008 
Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), Writers Alliance for Media Independence (WAMI), Charter 2000-Aliran and Civil Society Initiative for Parliamentary Reform (CSI-Parliament) call on Malaysians to vote wisely in the coming elections and to ensure that they vote in individuals with integrity to represent them in Parliament.
Passivity of Malaysian minds must stop
Barisan Nasional, which has been in power for half a century, has entrenched and strengthened formal and informal controls over the media which have left citizens uninformed of important political, socio-economic and health developments. Such controls have resulted in the closing of Malaysian minds.
In the run-up to the 12th general elections, CIJ, WAMI, Charter 2000-Aliran and CSI-Parliament note the declining levels of press freedom and restricted access to information. In 2007, CIJ documented more than 60 cases of editorial interference and legal threats against the media; intimidation against bloggers; clampdown of assemblies; and other violations.
1. Political pressure on the media
Excessive media restrictions have cowed the mainstream media into becoming a mouthpiece of the Barisan Nasional government. Regular warnings and instructions from the Internal Security Ministry to newspaper editors constitute direct governmental interference with editorial decisions and prevent the media from reporting issues of public interest. Such interference means that the public is not given the full story or is kept in the dark about important debates and issues, among them differing views on freedom of religion, the New Economic Policy, education and health issues. The media’s hands are tied because of various laws, in particular the Printing Presses and Publications Act that gives absolute powers to the Minister to decide on the issuance of annual publication permits for newspapers and magazines.
2. Concentration of media ownership
Another negative development is the trend in media ownership, with media companies coming under the control of a small number of politically connected companies or individuals. Two changes in the past year are extremely alarming. First was the merger of Nanyang Press, Sin Chew and Ming Pao (Hong Kong) that sealed the emergence of the Media Chinese International Limited, making the Chinese daily market even less competitive. Second, majority control of the relatively independent newspaper theSun was taken over by the BN-connected tycoon Tan Sri Vincent Tan. That this occurred just before the general elections signals that election reporting may be even more one-sided than in the previous elections.
3. Threats against journalists
Journalists have faced physical threats from individuals and party members while covering the general and by elections. In the Ijok and Machap by-elections, for example, journalists from Makkal Osai and Malaysian Nanban were manhandled and shoved by individuals linked to the MIC. Journalists have also been recalled to the headquarters due to pressure from political parties, in particular those comprising the Barisan Nasional. This is a serious threat against journalists’ integrity and undermines their commitment to ethical public interest reporting.
4. Professional journalism in jeopardy
The coverage of public interest issues has exposed the lack of professionalism among some sections of the media, where facts are compromised, issues and events deliberately ignored, and misreporting and misinformation are seen with unfortunate regularity. This situation is a result of the lack of market competition and the concentration of media ownership in the hand of political and corporate interests. It manifests itself in the shrinking areas of what can be covered by the media. The reporting of the BERSIH and HINDRAF rallies in November 2007 are clear examples of misreporting and lack of professional rigour among editors.
Changes through the ballot box
A fair, balanced and independent media is an important basis for a democracy. The period of elections constitutes an especially crucial time of test for the media.
CIJ, WAMI, Charter 2000-Aliran and CSI-Parliament calls for good journalism and free and fair media access to all parties and candidates. There can be no free and fair elections without a free press. Denied a free media, voters are effectively denied their right to make an informed choice. Unfortunately, due to the control by the Barisan Nasional parties over the mainstream media, coverage during the elections is lopsided and generally unfair to other parties. Academic research and civil society monitoring of the media during the elections have consistently revealed serious bias in favour of the Barisan Nasional.
We urge the journalists to exercise their ethical and professional standards and commitments to live up to their democratic role as the state’s watchdog, and not its lapdog. We also urge the caretaker government and media owners to practise a hands-off policy for the journalists to report what they see fit. Journalists, media owners and the caretaker government can do more harm to the elections and democracy than phantom voters.
CIJ, WAMI, Charter 2000-Aliran and CSI-Parliament urge voters to bring about media laws reform through the ballot box. We reject completely the Barisan Nasional’s argument that media freedom and diversity threaten political stability, economic growth and social harmony. Free flows of ideas and information are the fundamental basis for political accountability, economic prudence and social cohesion.
We are also critical of two misperceptions held and spread by certain opposition politicians that media freedom is a single issue that voters do not care about and that opposition parties cannot do anything until they win power at the federal level. If the public fails to see the importance of media freedom with all the political scandals, economic mismanagement and social unrest, the opposition is partially responsible for the failure articulate the importance of media freedom. Even in the absence of executive power, elected representatives can push for law reforms through mechanisms like private member bills and select committee sittings. Finally, advancing freedom of information can be done not only at the federal level, but also at the state level. Opposition parties aiming to win state power and candidates vying for state seats must not evade their responsibility promote and uphold transparency and accountability.
We hereby call for:
* The media to provide fair access and coverage to all parties in the elections.
* The media to provide honest and truthful coverage of issues and statements.
* Journalists to be granted the freedom to work without undue pressure placed on them by the publishers and external parties.
* All parties and individuals to respect the safety of journalists including photographers.
Caretaker government
The caretaker government to refrain from manipulating the media to serve its interests.
Election Commission
The Election Commission to call upon the RTM to organise televised election debates and allocate fair air time in its radio and television channels for the leaders of all political parties.
Parties and Candidates
* Parties and candidates to pledge to and advocate for in their campaigns (i) freedom of expression; (b) freedom of information; and (iii) greater diversity and plurality in media ownership and content.
* Elected Parliamentarians to put forward a motion for a Parliamentary Select Committee on Media Laws Reform or to form a Multiparty Caucus on Media Laws Reform to review laws on access to information and freedom of expression.
* Within the first year of their election, elected Parliamentarians and state assembly persons to table their private members’ bill for a Freedom of Information Act/Enactment, after consultation with civil society organizations, in the absence of a government bill tabled by the Federal/State government.
* The electorate to gather information from all possible sources to avoid falling victim to spin-doctoring and media control.
* The electorate to vote for parties that are committed to freedom of expression, freedom of information, and a diverse and competitive media environment.
* The electorate to demand that candidates make a concrete commitment to media law reforms and freedom of information laws, and to vote for those who do so.
CIJ is a not-for-profit organisation that aspires for a society that is democratic, just and free, where all people enjoy free media and the freedom to express, seek, and impart information.
WAMI, formed 11 days after the MCA took over Nanyang Siang Pau on 28 May 2001, advocates freedom of expression, freedom of information, and a competitive environment where diverse journalists and media organizations may operate independently and professionally.
Charter 2000-Aliran is a citizen’s media initiative to advance the cause of media freedom through the promotion of a media charter to raise public awareness.
CSI-Parliament is a group of individuals from civil society to act as a catalytic agent for parliamentary reform and to enhance the standard of politics and governance in Malaysia.