Hornbill Unleashed

March 10, 2011

How free will we be under PR?

Charles F Moreira

We need a holistic discourse on media freedom.

While Pakatan Rakyat says it will abolish the Internal Security Act (ISA) and the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) if it takes over the federal government, one still wonders whether journalists will be free to write whatever they want.

A point often forgotten in the discourse on press freedom is the control that media owners have on what journalists can write or say.

For example, are journalists writing for papers owned by Rupert Murdoch or Vincent Tan free to write anything critical of them or their companies?

Likewise, are journalists writing for party organs such as Harakah, The Rocket or Suara Keadilan free to write anything positive about the Barisan Nasional (BN) or critical of PAS, DAP or PKR or their leaders? Or are journalists writing for online publications free to write anything critical of their sponsors? An example of the latter is the Media Development Loan Fund, which has the objective of nurturing “independent” media.

The general answer to these questions appears to be “No.”

Take the case of controversial Greek journalist Taki Theodoracopulos. Wikipedia writes: “Due to Taki’s characterisation of himself as a ‘soi-disant antisemite’, coupled with strong criticism of the Israeli government and its supporters in the United States, The Spectator no longer permits him to write about Israel or Jewish affairs.”

So, not even in the liberal democracies can journalists stray too far from their employers’ editorial policies.

If Pakatan were to come to power and remove all government restraints on the media, would journalists working with the MCA and Umno media be free to write what they want?

With the repeal of the PPPA, anyone will be free to start a publication; so a journalist can join whichever media organisation suits his inclinations. Still, he will most likely not be able to go against the political alignment or interest of his employer.

And let us not forget the role of advertisers in constraining the media.

As any journalist who writes for one of those speciality magazines will tell you, you usually cannot write negatively about products or services sold by companies advertising in those magazines.

Also, advertisers rarely want to be associated with politically controversial publications; so the more ads a publication carries, the more it tends to tone down its political stridency.

For example, blogger Kenny Sia, who earns five figures a month from ads, once said that he avoided writing on partisan politics because it would deter advertisers from wanting to be associated with him. So his postings are mostly lighthearted articles.

New challenges

On another note, while Pakatan says it will abolish the ISA, what would it do if the BN parties march and demonstrate in the streets, instigate strikes by civil service workers and those in key utilities, occupy and shut down airports and create all kinds of civil and economic disruption?

Would it let them continue to do so in the name of freedom or would it forcefully act to stop them in the name of national security or national interest?

The abolition of the ISA and the PPPA should be welcomed, but new challenges will arise.

An approach often ignored by “independent” media in Malaysia is the membership-supported media cooperative.

A fine example is Vancouver Co-op Radio, a listener-supported, community radio station that serves as a voice for under-represented and marginalised segments of society and is operated mostly by volunteers.

It broadcasts programmes that encourage listeners to examine the social and political concerns of geographic and cultural communities in the province of British Columbia. It also has programmes on public affairs, music and the arts.

Individual subscribers to Co-op Radio pay C$60 a year each and institutional members pay more. Altogether the station earns C$1.8 million or more a year, and this allows it to eschew advertising and be a truly independent medium.

Are there enough Malaysians willing to support such cooperative initiatives here?



  1. Charles F Moreira miss a few crucial points here on freedom of speech and media freedom.

    Media freedom is curved by the existence of PPPA. Since the PPPA is under direct control of the Home Ministry, it can be bias and act in the interest of the ruling party, to suppress any other dissenting views.

    The Home Ministry has absolute authority in the application of the PPPA as big stick on recalcitrant media; no possibility for the media to appeal the ruling in court !

    Further, the journalist who work for such ‘dissenting’ media, can be subjected to 1 year arrest and RM 3000 fine for sedition ! Freelance journalist, and individuals can be ‘black listed’ or worst, subjected to some form of harassment.

    It is superfluous, and a distraction to the debate, for Charles to premise his argument that to be free, means for journalist to write anything they want. No, of course professional journalist would put distinct viewpoints for the media organization employing them.

    If the media organization’s target audience and clientele, wants absolutely non-biased reporting, then the journalist would have to present both sides – and all sides, of the story; against their own personal beliefs.

    If a PR government has the opportunity to remove PPPA, then – ironically, as a government, they would have no convenient toolkit with which to remove any media which threaten their political dominance (in the way that BN has been doing it).

    But true-believers in media freedom, won’t have it any other way. An enlightened (PR?) government won’t have it any other way. If events in the Middle East is any guide, a country can be only strengthened by the existence of multiple voices, to generate multiple ideas – to move the country forward. Suppress the voices, and it will find a way to burst out.

    I’ll say, let ’em say it out loud. Stupid voices and stupid views will die a natural death anyway. The good ones will stick.

    And then there is the glaring comparison between the case of public media (those that are funded by public money), and niche privately-owned media. The privately-owned media, like those owned by political parties, religious institution, marketing house – is entitled to advocate whatever they choose.

    But why should the likes of TV1 and TV2, and RTM be on public funding and sphewing the interest of the ruling political party ? Certainly there ain’t any pretense of unbiased, objective reporting in these institutions.

    PR should have included it in the 100-day plan, to reorganise and revamp all media funded using public money.

    Finally, on ISA: these sounds incredibly like a typical BN bureaucrat argument. Again, Charles – you have missed the point that there are numerous other laws with which to manage unlawful behaviour, but with the distinct progressive attribute of no option for the Home Ministry to exercise the Dark Age justice of ‘indefinite detention without trial ‘ (at the pleasure of the king).

    The argument that the country will rapidly descend to chaos if ISA is removed, is so darn intellectually light weight… and does not merit any further rebuttal. Sorry Charles, go rethink your piece through and through. Hope you read this ‘dissenting views’, and no offense intended.

    Comment by MERAMAT TAJAK — March 10, 2011 @ 9:59 AM | Reply

  2. The promise by PR that it will abolish the ISA and PPPA does not actually carry much political weight simply on the ground that not many people had so far been affected by the two acts. ISA or PPPA are actually necessary. It depends very much on how the authority applies or enforces the acts. The acts cannot be seen to be biased or even useless. It is the decision of the Minister-In-Charge which may be biased and unreasonable. It is just like a knife. If the knife is used by a person to kill another, it is not the knife that is wrong. To totally throw away the knife may cause problem when it is needed in the kitchen for cutting fish,etc.

    Press freedom should not be used to write articles detrimental to your own employer. If you are not happy, you can write to your own employer on why you are not happy. If your employer continues to ignore you and you are sure your employment is fully legal and cannot be terminated without a single valid reason then you have many options to pursue namely report to relevant authourity, go to court or simply resign. If you choose to resign then you may use the press freedom to criticize your employer as much as you can as long as your criticisms have merits.

    Total freedom is also potentially dangerous. It applies in all aspects of human lives and even animals. If we give just one first freedom to our daughter to go out with her friends at night she may end up being raped or even killed. Similarly,we cannot also allowed our pet dog the freedom to roam around as it may get knocked down by a car or it may bite others. There must be a control over the nature of freedom allowed and definitely not a total freedom.

    Comment by Ayen Piyat — March 10, 2011 @ 8:57 AM | Reply

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