Hornbill Unleashed

December 30, 2013

It’s about time we free the press

Bob Teoh

The increasing clampdown on newspapers calls for a rethink on how we run newspapers. Our role is to inform readers on matters that matter to them. How else can we hope to have a nation of thinking citizens who make decisions on an informed basis? I say it’s time to free the press; not by piecemeal efforts but by a bold initiative.

The naysayers say it can’t be done. Why not? Our neighbours, the Philippines and Indonesia, did it with the stroke of the pen following the fall of Marcos and Suharto. Some say this is because freedom is in their blood. Please don’t tell me we don’t have this rare blood type.

It is not a fight against the government of the day. The fight will have to continue even if the opposition takes over the reins. This is because the fight for press freedom is a continuing process. This requires the participation of all and from all stakeholders; legislators, regulators, journalists, media owners and investors, journalism educators, advertisers and the readers.

The debacle over the indefinite suspension of the publishing licence of The Heat, a three-month old English language newspaper, is clear enough that we as a nation has little clue on the role of the press in national life. This is especially so as the gag order came hot on the heels of yet another fiasco. This involved the withdrawal of a publishing permit for a new English language newspaper hours after it was granted.

I don’t intend to go into the gory details of these two cases as there is already too much speculation. That’s the whole irony of censorship. The more they want to cover up, they more we resort to speculation and worse still, rumours! So the choice is clear; news over rumours. We can’t have it both ways.

These two instances of state censorship or state intervention in the functioning of the press are but some of the more recent examples of confusion ensuing from the Home Ministry whose officers have seemingly an absolute hold over the fate of newspapers.

The irony again is that the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 (PPPA) was amended last year as part of the law reform promised by Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Among other things, the annual renewal of publishing permits was done away with. So was the absolute power of the Home Minister which cannot be challenged in court.

I had written then that the amendments do not address the critical issues of press freedom at all. Thus, the new PPPA continues to be bad law

I stand vindicated. This is because now, more than one year after the PPPA amendments, some newspapers are still hounded by the boys at the Home Ministry with the notorious “show-cause” letters why their publishing permits should not be suspended or withdrawn for alleged violations of conditions of their permits. At the same time some other favoured newspapers which resort to extremism get away with blue murder. Things have not changed much.

It’s easy to put all the blame on the government. Let’s be honest, to begin with, journalists must take a hard look at ourselves. In our profession, we see corruption. Some journalists live beyond their means just like some corrupt public officials whom they accuse of the same crime. The press cannot pretend to fight corruption unless and until it is not involved in it. We can only fight corruption by practising journalism with a conscience.

Some media owners are also part of the problem. For instance, in the case of the publishing permit for a new English newspaper that was withdrawn hours after it was granted. The publisher had already hired journalists for the job. Then it seems influential owners of three English language newspapers objected the new newspaper.

My information is that the big boy in the English newspaper segment objected, fearing the new competitor would eat into their plummeting readership and advertising. The second objection came from a rebranded title which feared likewise. The third is a free paper whose owner was desperately trying to sell of his paper and argued that a new licence should not be issued since he was willing to sell his paper to the new publisher for a price – RM300 million!

With media owners like them, do we seriously expect free and professional press?

Now let me touch on another stakeholder, the advertisers. It’s quite obvious to readers by now that those who buy ad space in newspapers have been leaning so heavily on publishers that nowadays it’s difficult to distinguish news from advertising. You may remember the lack of ethics over political advertising during the last general election.

There are many local journalism and mass communications schools in the country but not one of them that I know teaches journalism with a conscience.

So where do we start? Some say form a press or media council. I am not for it just yet. I say start with a stakeholders’ roundtable to brainstorm the critical issues.

The first issue I would place on the table is journalism ethics. The process should take us up to the formation of a parliamentary committee on press freedom. It would take a while but it’s worth the wait.

1 Comment »

  1. The press must stand their grounds and fight back. Journalists must carry out their duties without fear or favour. Work for press freedom and the truth. Make Malaysians thinking citizens.

    Comment by Mata Kuching — December 30, 2013 @ 8:30 AM | Reply

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