Will Malaysiakini Ruling Bring Greater Media Freedom?
October 17, 2012
Malaysiakini, a trailblazing, online news service based in Kuala Lumpur and published in English, Malay, Chinese, and Tamil with an impressive readership of 2.5 million per month, has for more than a decade found a way around the country’s strict censorship policy by publishing only online. Now, after 13 years of online service, Malaysiakini may be able to offer its news to readers in print.
In 2010, Malaysiakini applied for a permit required by the government to publish and sell 40,000 print newspapers in and around Kuala Lumpur. The Home Ministry rejected the application without giving a reason. Malaysiakini challenged the decision, calling the ruling unconstitutional and a violation of freedom of expression. Finally, on October 1, the Malaysian High Court declared that the Home Ministry’s decision to deny Malaysiakini a publishing permit application was “improper and irrational” and against the principles set forth in the Malaysian constitution.
Traditional media (print, TV, radio) in Malaysia are closely aligned with or controlled by members of the ruling party and exercise a high degree of self-censorship to maintain their government-controlled media licenses. This year in its Press Freedom Index, Freedom House ranked Malaysia 144th out of 197 countries, putting Malaysia behind Uganda and even Libya. It ranked Malaysia 31st out of 40 Asian countries. In April, a global outcry erupted over the lack of local media coverage and the censorship of international media footage of the BERSIH 3.0 rally in April. The High Court’s declaration on Malaysiakini is therefore a noteworthy and timely victory for press freedom here.
While most Malaysians still get their news and information from newspapers, in recent years internet news sites have emerged as a counter force to the traditional media. Malaysiakini has blazed the trail with its hard-edged, investigative reporting, which is often critical of the government. In fact, many political observers attribute the opposition coalition’s (Pakatan Rakyat) strong showing in the 2008 general elections to the power and persuasion of internet media, such as Malaysiakini. Some argue that Malaysiakini’s anti-establishment reputation and critical style was the real reason that the Home Ministry denied its application for a printing license, fearing more widespread penetration of Malaysiakini’s critical reporting, beyond just the internet.
The conditions seem favorable for greater media freedom and freedom of expression in Malaysia, as Prime Minister Najib has less than six months to call the 13th general elections. In the past year, in an attempt to attract votes, the prime minister has repealed and amended several of Malaysia’s Colonial-era laws affecting civil freedoms, including the Internal Security Act and the Printing Presses and Publishing Act.
However, Malaysiakini’s victory is not yet in the bag. The High Court’s declaration only means that Malaysiakini has the right to submit an application, while the Home Minister must still consider and approve it. “Although the decision is likely to be appealed, the court decision is a step in the right direction. Malaysiakini will be asking the Home Minister to take cognizance of the verdict and make the necessary changes to the Printing Presses and Publications Act,” said Malaysiakini’s co-founder and CEO, Premesh Chandran. The Home Minister has revealed his preference for an appeal.
The case will become a test of Prime Minister Najib’s rhetoric for change, and Malaysians will be watching closely to see if and when Malaysiakini’s application is approved.
Anthea Mulakala is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Malaysia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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