V. Rajoo arranging the newspapers at his sundry shop at the Perak Urban Transformation Centre in Ipoh recently. Although it is laudable that Malaysia has improved its World Press Freedom Index rankings, the position is far from respectable. PIC BY MUHAIZAN YAHYA

REPORTING the news without fear or favour is a key tenet of journalism, an industry widely acknowledged for its significant influence over society at large.

Having witnessed the rise and fall of governments, the role of the Fourth Estate transcends covering events and current issues; it plays a crucial role in shaping the mind of a nation, while serving as a bridge between leaders and society.

Due to the influence it wields over the public, the media has become the subject of scrutiny from all sides, some even labelling it a tool for the powers that be.

Exercising control over the media was in the past deemed a “necessary” measure in order to censor what the audience should and should not know, thus putting great strain on media firms.

The recent shutdown of Utusan Malaysia, after an 80-year existence, was widely viewed as a case in point, and sent shockwaves through the local media fraternity.

For years, the Bahasa Melayu daily had been considered the de facto mouthpiece of Umno, which owned a 19 per cent stake in the Utusan Group.

Following Barisan Nasional’s historic defeat in the 14th General Election last year, the paper could no longer absorb losses and on Oct 9 announced that it was shutting down.

Almost a year after the election, under the new Pakatan Harapan government, Malaysia experienced a surge in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.

The rankings, released in April, saw Malaysia jump 22 places to 123rd out of 180 countries. This puts Malaysia at the top of Southeast Asian countries, ahead of Indonesia (124th), Philippines (134th), Thailand (136th), Myanmar (138th), Cambodia (143rd), Singapore (151st), Brunei (152nd), Laos (171st) and Vietnam (176th).

Experts believe that more must be done for Malaysia to improve its position in the rankings.

Legal expert Professor Datuk Salleh Buang said although Malaysia’s rise in the World Press Freedom Index was laudable, it was far from a respectable spot.

“One big reason is our Sedition Act 1948 and the string of high-profile cases affecting opposition politicians (under the previous regime).

“Hopefully things will improve under the present government. Sweden has its own Swedish Press Council and its own Public Press Ombudsman. Can’t we move in that direction too?

“When can the Malaysian media move to self-regulation? Is it ready to do so?” he asked.

Salleh said the media should make a collective effort to offer a better version of these “outdated laws” and continuously engage the authorities, such as pressing for the repeal of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984.

He said more could be done to empower the media, including better education and professional training for journalists, as well as a stronger Code of Conduct for the media fraternity and setting up a Malaysian Media Council.

A review of the relevant laws, he said, was also necessary.

“The Sedition Act 1948, Official Secrets Act 1972 (OSA) and Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (CMA) all deserve review, amendment and revision.

“There was an earlier move to repeal the Sedition Act, but the government subsequently changed its mind,” he said.

His views were echoed by lawyer Nizam Bashir, who said there were a number of legislation or statutory provisions that inhibit journalists’ ability to report news without fear or favour.

“One merely needs to look at the whole 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Bhd) debacle to see how this was utilised to its full rigour to prevent balanced reporting on the 1MDB issue.

“This was evident from the suspension of The Edge from July to September 2015 on the grounds that its reports on 1MDB were prejudicial to public order and national security as well as likely to alarm public opinion.”

He cited the example of the Sedition Act, which he said was passed 71 years ago and enacts offences in a wide and arguably vague manner and does not afford appropriate defences to the accused.

“It is important to keep in mind that the sedition law was abolished in the United Kingdom in 2009 as it was considered a relic of an era where speech and expression was not considered a right.”

He said the OSA and CMA needed to be reviewed.

“So change is in the air and the fight must continue for better laws to support not just journalists, but their readers too.

“After all, a free press is only as good as people who think for themselves.

“We must not be afraid to change archaic laws. Be bold and embrace transparency as the means to keep all of us in check where the nation’s interest is concerned,” Nizam said.

Centre for Independent Journalism executive director Wathshlah Naidu called for the government to demonstrate respect for freedom of expression and to educate the public accordingly.

She urged the government to fulfil its election manifesto promise to repeal the Sedition Act and other legislation that could be abused to fetter the freedom of expression, such as Sections 233 and 211 of the CMA and the Printing Presses and Publications Act.

“Our government must demonstrate leadership by unequivocally embracing the concept of equality and respect for the human rights of all.

“It must ensure policies that make children of all backgrounds feel welcome in our schools, regardless of their ethnicity or religion.

“The government must also promote media literacy and education to foster a more positive environment for discussion.”