ALONG THE WATCHTOWER By M.VEERA PANDIYANAlthough there are questions on the fairness of global rankings, there is no denying that Malaysia is in an unenviable position when it comes to freedom of the media.
WHEN it comes to freedom of the press, we are supposedly in the same boat as Angola and Madagascar.
Malaysia is currently at 143rd spot in the press freedom rankings of 196 countries – along with the two African nations.
The assessments by Washington-based research group Freedom House were released in conjunction with World Press Freedom Day on Tuesday.
Malaysia is among 63 countries (32%) rated “not free” in the 2010 survey in which 68 (35%) were listed as “free” and 65 (32%) as “partly free”.
The rankings were based on the countries’ legal, political and economic environments, with demerit points ranging from 0-40 in the categories – the lower the score, the higher the ranking.
Malaysia docked 64 points – below India and Timor Leste (35), the Philippines (46), Indonesia (53), Thailand (62) and Cambodia (63) – but above Singapore (68), Brunei (75), Vietnam (83), China (84), and Myanmar (94).
It is not surprising that many have already doomed the country to plunge to the depths of Zimbabwe (81); or have grouped it with the worst of the lot – North Korea (ranking 196th), Turkmenistan (195th), Uzbekistan, Libya, Eritrea, Myanmar (191st), Belarus (190th), Cuba (189th), Iran (188th) and Equatorial Guinea (187th).
There is no denying that Malaysia is in a disgraceful position, although there are some issues on the comparative fairness of the rankings.
The reason for the country being where it is now is quite obvious: outdated and abhorrent laws like the Printing Presses and Publications Act, the Internal Security Act, the Sedition Act and the Official Secrets Act.
The immediate repeal of these laws will go a long way to show the world that the Government walks the talk when it comes to media freedom; is accountable for its actions and transparent in its dealings.
Freedom House’s evaluation covers areas in which pressure can be placed on the flow of information and the ability of print, broadcast, and Internet-based media to operate freely without fear of repercussions.
But before going into the fairness of the rankings, let’s look at Freedom House and its backers.
Among its top donors are the US government-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and one Peter Ackerman, an ex-Wall Street investment banker with a colourful past.
One of its founders described its work as such in 1991: “A lot of what we do was done covertly by the CIA 25 years ago.”
NED funds mostly flow through foundations actively influencing “civil society” and electoral processes around the world, a practice referred to as “cloak and ballot” operations.
As for Ackerman, he was a close aide of junk bond king Michael Milken at investment banking firm Drexel Burnham Lambert that went bust in 1990 because of illegal activities.
Milken was jailed 10 years for securities fraud but Ackerman – reputedly the highest-paid of all his men – ended up with a fortune worth US$500mil (RM1.5bil).
There has been a long-running debate between critical scholars and affiliates of Ackerman’s International Centre on Non-violent Conflict, with the critics suggesting that the centre and Ackerman are “acting in the service of imperialism”.
On the judgment of rankings, in many cases, a country may have all the needed laws to show that its media is not controlled but the reality below may be poles apart from the surface.
I’m no apologist for Malaysia’s suppressive laws and self-censorship, but the question is, are they worse than physical attacks and getting away with the murders of journalists?
In the Philippines, rated as “partly free”, four radio broadcasters were killed in 2010 after they ran exposes of graft and corruption in local government offices.
The South-East Asian Press Alliance noted that the Philippines has the dubious record of having the most number of journalists killed in the line of duty in a single incident – the 2009 Ampatuan Massacre – in which 32 media workers were shot dead in politically-related circumstances.
A few killers of journalists may have been brought to trial but impunity still reigns in the Philippines. Since January, two journalists have already been murdered there.
In Thailand, rated higher than Malaysia with 62 points, authorities raided 13 radio stations and shut down 12 for airing a political speech deemed defamatory to the royal family.
Suspects behind the deaths of Reuters photographer Muramoto and freelance photojournalist Polenghi remain unknown.
In Indonesia, another “partly free” rated country, the killing of journalist Ardiansyah Matra in July, was described as “suicide” by local police despite reports that his ribs were found to be broken.
Police have also stopped the probe into the killing of another reporter, Ridwan Salamun, even making a farcical hint that he provoked the riots where he eventually met his death.
In Malaysia, press freedom watchdog the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) reported in February that greater restrictions were imposed on all forms of expression, especially on views expressed through the Internet last year.
It cited the arrests of authors and bloggers, the banning of books, show cause letters issued to newspapers and the denial of printing permits in its Freedom of Expression in Malaysia 2010 report.
But while much of the blame over media control was focused on the Barisan Nasional-led Federal Government, CIJ also said that Pakatan Rakyat state governments were not far behind.
The report contended that it was normal for sitting governments to exert covert control over the media and what citizens say about them to remain in power, adding that there were worrying signs that Pakatan might also be susceptible to attempting to control the media.
It cited incidents such as the DAP-led Penang government’s ban on New Straits Times and Utusan Malaysia from its events, PKR’s barring of journalists from Utusan from its congress, the Kedah government’s barring of selected media organisations from covering a state assembly sitting and the Selangor government’s banning of 1Malaysia logos on advertising billboards, declaring this to be part of Barisan’s propaganda and political symbols.
But the burden is still with the Federal Government to restore true media freedom, beginning with the repeal of suppressive laws.
Genuine political resolve is all it takes to mend the tattered image of the country’s media.