Malaysian media, already controlled by various legislations, face further restrictions in Covid-19 times as the government uses the pandemic as an excuse to curb press freedom.
On World Press Freedom Day, there is an active police investigation against Astro Awani broadcaster Luqman Hariz over his critical remarks on the RM50,000 compound issued against a burger seller in Kelantan for violating Covid-19 SOPs.
Incoming Inspector-General of Police (IGP) Acryl Sani Abdullah Sani reportedly said an investigation was opened under Section 504 of the Penal Code for intentional insult with intent to provoke a breach of the peace and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act for improper use of network facilities. He accused the broadcaster of defaming and inciting public hatred against the police.
Both laws – along with other legislations like the Sedition Act, criminal defamation (Section 500 of the Penal Code), the Official Secrets Act, and a regulation under emergency law against “fake news” – prevent the media from critically reporting the Covid-19 epidemic, among other issues.
I myself was subject to two police investigations over my reportage related to health care issues: one under the Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration in 2019 over an article on the Peka B40 health screening programme, and one under the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government last year over a series of reports on the findings of an independent inquiry into the 2016 fatal Sultanah Aminah Hospital fire.
Ironically, the inquiry was commissioned by the (Barisan Nasional) government itself, but the subsequent PH and PN administrations did not make it public, not even after my reports were published.
No number of polite forums will do anything to further press freedom in Malaysia as long as oppressive laws curbing free speech are not repealed.
In the case of the Astro Awani broadcaster, he was simply giving his, admittedly crass, opinion on what he believed to be unfair police action against a small trader. Why should the police be protected from insults when ordinary citizens are not? Insults are not a criminal offence because it’s absurd to spend police resources and taxpayers’ money on something as trivial as hurting one’s feelings.
Press freedom means allowing the media to report anything. Period. As journalists, we are mere witnesses, in that we report whatever is happening on the ground, based on what people tell us. It is not our job to uncover the “truth”, per se, as we only report people’s accounts of events.
Of course, we also strive to get other points of view to write a balanced report, besides getting as much data as possible to back claims up. The onus, then, is on the government to exercise their right of reply when it comes to reportage critical of public policies.
By excluding certain media organisations from official press conferences, refusing media requests for comments or data, or worse, arresting journalists, the government is not just attacking the press. The government is really refusing to be accountable to the people by dismissing public concerns highlighted by the press, the Fourth Estate that is crucial to a vital democracy.
We are the informal representatives of the people by bringing public concerns directly to government officials because of our unique access to figures of authority. Snubbing, threatening, and arresting journalists is akin to an attack on the people.
Inexplicably, the government has been sharing even less data as the Covid-19 crisis in Malaysia deepens. For example, the Ministry of Health (MOH) stopped publishing the case numbers for Covid-19 deaths since April 9, which makes it impossible to know their date of admission. Without this data, we don’t know whether the deaths of Covid-19 victims brought in dead are reported beyond seven days, or whether Malaysians are dying faster from Covid-19.
State-owned media organisations should also be able to report critically on Covid-19, without having to unquestioningly favour the government all the time. The quasi state-funded BBC does plenty of critical coverage on various issues, including the pandemic.
Political parties should not dictate what the press can and cannot report. Even if journalists may have their personal political allegiances, politicians don’t really care about us. All we need is for the government and politicians to let us do our job in peace without harassing us.
Boo Su-Lyn is CodeBlue editor-in-chief. She is a libertarian, or classical liberal, who believes in minimal state intervention in the economy and socio-political issues.