The free media agenda

THE Communications and Multimedia Ministry (formerly the Information Ministry) has always been regarded as a media platform for the government.

Its agencies such as national broadcaster RTM and national news agency Bernama mostly broadcast and report governmental news although Bernama does carry news on the Opposition in line with balanced reporting as stated in the Act under which it was set up 50 years ago.

Viewers of RTM's two television channels and listeners of its radio stations are daily fed with news on ministers as a priority with that of the prime minister being the main story when he has anything to say.

The news format is predictable and not much emphasis is given to news value.

Another agency, the Information Department functions as a face-to- face communicator of government policies and programmes with the people mainly in areas without access to electronic or print media.

Due to such rigid arrangements RTM's TV channels and over 30 radio stations have been losing their audience to private channels and station.

Radio ERA for example claims to have more listeners than all the RTM stations combined, not to mention earning more in advertising revenue.

With a business as usual approach, things in the ministry were predictable and staid.

But this is coming to an end, albeit long overdue, thanks to the new Pakatan Harapan government and appointment of prominent lawyer Gobind Singh Deo as the new minister in charge.

During a visit to Bernama on Monday, Gobind said the PH government upholds the principle of media freedom and wants the ministry's agencies to report fairly on the Opposition and that there won't be any news blackout.

"We do not support media blackout of the Opposition, and I have made this known because I know what it feels to be on the other side," he said referring to his long years in the opposition that hardly got a space in official media.

Gobind's appointment is making waves and is a welcome breath of fresh air within the ministry. His commitment to media freedom is reassuring and rejuvenating.

"I also understand the importance of the voice of the Opposition," he said. "I will support news reports that are relevant based on current issues and news value."

This is good for journalism. Government-run media and broadcasting outlets can now regain credibility with the unshackling of such inhibitions, constraints and prohibitions.

Gobind has given RTM, the biggest of the ministry's agencies, six months to rebrand and improve services, content and delivery. No more business as usual.

The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), another agency of the ministry, is also set to dismantle its favourite inclination of blocking online content ostensibly to "maintain public order" as well as taking people to court over actions it deems detrimental to the public.

These include not only that of the Sarawak Report website but also some prominent bloggers like OutSyed The Box.

The blogger, Syed Akbar Ali, achieved a phenomenal 45 million hits in the 10 years his blog has been running. The blog was blocked by the MCMC for the past three years.

He told me that it has now been unblocked, thankfully.

Prominent media personality Tan Sri Johan Jaaffar in his newspaper column has called on the MCMC to stop playing Big Brother because this is against the objective of its very existence which among others, is to promote a civil society where information-based services will provide the basis of continuing enhancement to quality of work and life.

The journalism profession as we traditionally know it is already under threat from digital technology and the last thing it needs is another law to govern it.

The commitment by the PH government to abolish the controversial Anti-Fake News Act that was rushed through Parliament in the final week before Parliament was dissolved on April 28 is another feather in its cap.

Gobind expects the move to repeal the Act to be tabled as early as the first sitting of the new Parliament a month from now.

The bottom line for media practitioners is to be cautious not to abuse the freedom granted by the new government in the landscape of the New Malaysia because all freedoms come with responsibility.