Global press freedom declines to lowest point in 10 years

Global press freedom declines to lowest point in 10 years

Global press freedom declined in 2014 to its lowest point in the last 10 years, says US-based non-governmental organisation Freedom House.

As its annual Freedom of the Press report highlights this World Press Freedom Day: "Journalists around the world faced intensified pressure from all sides last year - from governments using security or antiterrorism laws to silence critical voices, militant groups and criminal gangs kidnapping and issuing death threats to intimidate journalists, and media owners manipulating news content for their own interests."

According to the report, Malaysia fell one spot to 142 among 199 countries on its press freedom ranking.

This is hardly a surprise for many.

Most media professionals thought Malaysia's ranking would have plunged further, especially after the recent spate of arrests of journalists under the Sedition Act, namely Malaysiakini's Susan Loone last September over her report on the police crackdown on a volunteer patrol unit in Penang and the recent haul-up of The Malaysian Insider top editors and senior executives over their source report on the Conference of Rulers' decision on hudud.

On top of that, Malaysia had already received a poor report card in February from another global civil society group, Reporters Without Borders (RWB), which ranked Malaysia at 147 out of 180 countries in its 2014 World Press Freedom Index.

But what is more sobering for Malaysian press is that the current ranking is an actual improvement for press freedom in the country.

In 2004, Malaysia ranked 152 out of 194 countries in Freedom House's press freedom report while RWB ranked Malaysia 122 out of 167 (45th worse compared to this year's 33rd worse in the world).

Media monitor for local press freedom group Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) Ding Jo-Ann agrees that the new low ranking and recent crackdown on journalists do not signal a decline of press freedom in the country but rather, they are an indication of the dire state of our press freedom.

"The press in Malaysia is highly controlled and regulated.

"And there is a long history of government and authorities using their power to arrest and harass the press in Malaysia - you could even say there has been an abuse of power - dating way back to 1987 when The Star was closed down, along with two other newspapers, and journalists were arrested under Operasi Lalang," says Ding.

The last decade has also seen various media harassment and intimidation cases, she adds.

"In 2003, the Malaysiakini office was raided and 19 of their computers were confiscated after the Police received a complaint about a reader's opinion piece that criticised Malays. In 2008, a Sin Chew Daily journalist, Tan Hoon Cheng, was arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for reporting what an Umno leader had said.

"So it's really not new that journalists and editors get arrested."

What is new, she says, and perhaps good news for the press, is that people are now more aware of this issue.

"People have more information and are less tolerant of these abuses of power - they can tell the difference between a genuine arrest because someone has committed a crime and the authorities using their power to intimidate or threaten because they feel that the interests of the powers that be are being threatened."

The spectre of the draconian national security laws are not only detrimental to the freedom of the press but also to the harmony of the society at large, says Ding.

"The press has an important role of fostering discourse in sensitive subjects that are of national interest such as race and religion but it is hampered by the Sedition Act. The media should be able to demonstrate how to have a mature discussion with different opinions instead of burying the differences.

"The press can also highlight the other voices, such as the moderate voices and magnify those voices to help promote peace and counter the sensational and loud voices of the extremists.

"Imagine the media landscape if the Sedition Act is abolished - with open views and mature discourse instead of journalists trying to slip something in between the lines and hoping that people will guess what they are trying to say."

The laws regulating the media remain a major restriction on press freedom in Malaysia, Ding concedes.

"Both traditional and online media are shackled by law, make no mistake. The Government sometimes like to say go online, it's free, but it's not free."

Other than the Sedition Act, Ding thinks the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 (PPPA) also needs to be abolished.

Although it has been amended to relax the licensing of print media, she says, the government have proven that they can still control ownership by denying publication permits to new media players.

"For instance, the Home Minister said one reason why they pulled back the printing and publication licence of one online news portal is because they don't want the people to get confused from too much information from too many newspapers.

"That is an outdated view, and clearly just an excuse as they are increasing the access to cable television for rural folks by collaborating with a provider to make the service available for free. Why are they not scared that this - the availability of more TV channels - will be confusing for people?

"This makes it easy for people to conclude that the Government does not want these alternative media to reach more people through channels that they cannot control," she muses.

The issue of ownership which has a heavy bearing on press freedom is delicate, she notes, but it is important for the media organisations to be transparent about their ownership to protect their credibility.

For example, she says, if you are owned by a business, there needs to be disclosure if someone you have interviewed or written about has close links with the business owner of your media organisation, so that if he or she comes across in an incredibly good light, people will be clear of the link.

Similarly with political ownership, Ding adds.

"It is difficult to say that a political party cannot own a newspaper, for instance, so I think that is not the issue.

"What is important is if a newspaper is owned by a political party, it will need to be transparent about it and what political leanings or biases it might have so that readers are clear when it makes a particular stand," she says.

Ding agrees with Freedom House's findings that criminal and violent intimidation is another growing threat against journalists. In Malaysia, she says, woman journalists are most vulnerable highlighting the case of a female reporter from a Tamil language newspaper in Penang who received a death threat that seemed to be gang-related after she wrote an article about a police raid at an entertainment outlet in January.

Last month, a BFM radio journalist received death threats for her satirical report on Kelantan's implementation of hudud.

What is needed is for the police to take the death threats more seriously and try their best to apprehend the culprits, says Ding.

"When a journalist, or even somebody anonymous, makes an innocuous comment or report that is vaguely seditious, the police are really efficient to investigate and nab them, but when it comes to death threats and harassment for journalists, specifically those made in response to the "seditious" or "insulting' comments, they always have problems of tracing down these culprits."

At the end of the day, there is still much that needs to be done to to raise awareness of the importance of press freedom and to push the envelop further in the fight for press freedom, something that the CIJ aspires to do (with the right resources and manpower) in collaboration with journalists and media organisations.

Ultimately, says Ding, there is a need to raise public awareness that press freedom does not exclusively belong to the press - it belongs to everyone.

"It's a cliche but the press is the fourth estate, it has an important role of keeping the people in power accountable.

"How do people keep their political bosses accountable and on their toes if the auditor-general's report is not made available to them, or if the budget is not made available to them, for example?

"And if people don't fight for this right or freedom, they are the ones who will suffer from leakages in the economy, from bad infrastructure, from poor transportation and etc. Fighting for press freedom is in everyone's interest."

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