Repressive laws cause massive decline in press freedom in Malaysia
In recent years, Malaysia has made great strides in press freedom. Under his first democratically elected government in decades, repressive laws were repealed, giving the country’s media more space to do their job.
But the unexpected resignation of Prime Minister Mathathir Mohamad last year caused the coalition government to collapse and the king to appoint a new prime minister, without holding an election.
Since new leader Muhyiddin Yassin was sworn in on March 1, 2020, press freedom has come under attack, with the government relying on pre-existing laws and a new ‘anti-fake news’ decree targeting journalists, according to media experts.
These measures introduced during the pandemic, along with instances of journalists being questioned or raided by police over their coverage, resulted in an 18-point drop for Malaysia in the annual World Press Freedom Index. Published by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the index ranked Malaysia 119 out of 180 countries, with 1 being the freest.
“For two years, Malaysia has had the biggest increase in the press freedom index,” Daniel Bastard, head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, told VOA, adding that the political change had brought a big change for the country’s media.
The former ruling party’s return to power had an immediate impact, Bastard said, adding, “Self-censorship is clearly back.”
The government has relied on tough laws that media analysts say target journalists and restrict access to information. These include the Official Secrets Act, the Communications and Multimedia Act, and the Sedition Act. The latter is liable to a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
For journalists, navigating the laws is an ongoing challenge.
“There is too much government control,” Farah Marshita Abdul Patah, president of the National Union of Journalists of Peninsular Malaysia (NUJM), told VOA. “There are too many laws we have to abide by.”
Laws prevent the media from releasing important information to the public, Patah said.
This was seen during the pandemic when authorities tried to control media coverage.
COVID measures have been used as a pretext to block media access to some press conferences and government events, Alyaa Alhadjri, of Gerakan Media Merdeka (GeramM), a Malaysian press freedom coalition, told VOA. in Southeast Asia.
For the most part, she said, only state media and national broadcasters were allowed to attend the briefings.
Others have been prosecuted for reporting.
Tashny Sukumaran, correspondent for the South China Morning Post, was questioned by police over May coverage of the arrests of migrant workers amid a COVID-19 crackdown in Kuala Lumpar.
And in August, police raided the Kuala Lumpur offices of broadcaster Al Jazeera and confiscated computers in connection with a documentary about the arrests of migrant workers.
Two Australian journalists from the broadcaster have been told their work visas will not be renewed and seven in total face charges of sedition, defamation and violations of the Communications and Multimedia Act, according to RSF.
Police also arrested a Bangladeshi migrant worker featured in the documentary.
“All these events over the past year generally do not make it easy for journalists operating in Malaysia,” said Patrick Lee, chairman of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Malaysia (FCCM) and correspondent for Agence France. Press (AFP).
After Sukumaran’s summons, many media refrained from covering threats against migrant workers, RSF’s Bastard said.
“In 2020, harassment and self-censorship were mostly related to the authorities’ response to the COVID-19 crisis, and specifically the plight of migrant workers,” Bastard told VOA.
Malaysia’s Ministry of Communications and Multimedia did not respond to VOA’s email.
False News Act
The biggest concern, according to media and analysts, is a new ‘anti-fake news’ law passed under emergency powers in March 2021, as part of the government’s efforts to tackle misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19.
The decree is similar to a 2018 law that was widely criticized by human rights and press freedom groups, and ultimately repealed under former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s government.
Those found guilty of spreading “fake news” could be fined 100,000 ringgit (US$24,000), up to three years in prison, or both. Repeat offenders face a daily fine of up to 1,000 ringgit (243 USD).
“Usually, laws like these have to be drafted in parliament and passed after a long debate,” said FCCM’s Lee. “But because our country is currently under emergency law, no parliamentary approval is needed to pass these laws.”
Critics pointed to the loosely defined law as problematic.
“It’s ambiguous,” Patah told VOA. “There’s no clear definition of what fake news is, so basically it’s open to interpretation.”
Bastard said the executive order “clearly allows the government to give its own version of the truth.”
The law is part of a larger pattern that RSF has observed across the region during the pandemic.
“COVID is a pretense, of course,” Bastard said. “In Southeast Asia, we have seen many cases of countries that have passed very harsh laws restricting press freedom and freedom of information.”
Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand are among the countries that have used the pandemic as a pretext to restrict press freedom, Bastard said.
For Malaysia to avoid further decline, the government must repeal laws that target journalists and ensure the press is respected and has access to information, Bastard said.
“I think it’s something that needs to be done, that takes Malaysia into another era and puts it on the path to true democracy.”
Changes are also needed to improve access to information and public perception of the media, Patah said.
“There has to be trust in the media,” she said. “For us to earn the public’s trust, we must be seen as free media.”
Nabila Ganinda contributed to this report.