PETALING JAYA: After a short respite, pressure on the Malaysian media to toe the line has risen again.
The increasing threat of legal action with draconian laws has reduced mainstream media to a mere government mouthpiece, according to stakeholders.
The National Union of Journalists cited the recent case of Malaysiakini being taken to court over a comment one of its readers left on its website as a sign of the deterioration of media freedom.
Its president Farah Marshita Abdul Patah told theSun that such action was taken to serve as a warning to media personnel and companies not to cross the line.
“Media personnel are always under watch, thus making the task of delivering news that may be offensive to the government difficult.”
Even in the best of times, local media did not see the same level of freedom enjoyed by their peers in not only developed countries but also some neighbouring ones.
But things got worse over the past year, as proven by its fall in the World Press Freedom Index 2021.
Malaysia’s press is once again faced with harassment, intimidation and censorship, according to a statement by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which is responsible for the index.
Malaysia is now at 119th spot out of 180 countries represented in the index, down 18 rungs from last year.
The media was able to breathe a little easier when the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition was in power from May 2018 to March last year.
PH had even made a commitment to repeal some legislation deemed draconian to the media. However, it fell before it could fulfil the promises.
As RSF noted, reviving the Barisan Nasional-era Special Affairs Department (Jasa) and the use of legislation such as the Sedition Act 1948, Official Secrets Act 1972 and Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 gave authorities tighter control over the media.
There are fears that media freedom will drop to the same level as it was under the BN administration. It was then at 145th spot in the index.
The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) said the current government is using the Covid-19 pandemic to restrict the media’s access to press conferences, parliamentary sittings and events.
CIJ executive director Wathshlah Naidu said such restrictions have created the perception that the government is trying to control the narrative. “It is crucial that an independent and self-regulatory body such as a media council be established to set out the standards and code of conduct for the media.”
Human Rights Commission of Malaysia commissioner Jerald Joseph said the continued existence of restrictive laws as well as the revival of Jasa are serious restrictions to freedom of expression.