A PRESS council can be by any other name. The debate on press freedom and regulation in Malaysia resurfaced in a different light over the past month. We will see a change in the landscape of Malaysia’s system of expression. Both society and government call for a re-examination of the role of the media. There is a demand for good journalism.
Sentiments from the fraternity have not varied over the years. Much of it, echoing senior journalists and editors over the years who have responded to the idea of setting up a press council as “not in our lifetime”. There was a tinge of cynicism expressed by way of seeing the council as another layer of “control” bearing in mind the various legislation governing media and the work of journalists. On top of the list are the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 and Anti-Fake News Act 2018.
This mood for change (and optimism) can be assessed in five ways. One is the creation of a conducive space for expression, debate and criticism. And, this goes beyond the media and journalism. It extends to the arts and other art forms, including visual arts, theatre and literature.
Second, it demonstrates the willingness of the government to walk the talk on press freedom and expression. Much has been uttered on the role of journalists and the media, and the government upholding press freedom. This present initiative could be a watershed in restructuring that system.
Third, it should prepare journalists and news organisations to reorientate and re-examine their philosophy and function in society and nation viz the concept and practice of media as a neutral observer, or active partisan, or interpreter of events and ideas.
Fourth, the creation of a conduit for complaints on the press by the public and government. Some organisations, such as the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam), have played that role.
Fifth, the preparedness of the journalistic fraternity to self-regulate and not be regulated by another authority. This has implications on the protection of journalists and their vocation; some may want to call it profession. But, what is significant, too, is the deliberation by the fraternity on the definition of journalism and its standards in the context of Malaysia post-May 9.
In early 2000, I was involved in deliberating a proposal for a Malaysia Media Council under the auspices of the Malaysian Press Institute. Together with Professor Mohd Safar Hasim of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, I co-authored a report submitted to the government for a self-regulatory mechanism to be set up through Parliament. It was proposed to be a statutory press council.
The report recommended a membership of 25 (including the chairman) with 16 members from the media and eight from the public. Note that politicians are specifically barred. The nomenclature sets aside terms and categories like “mainstream” or “alternative” media/journalists. Sanctions are both on the journalist and the organisation. The proposal also does not exclude online platforms.
A press council is not a court of law. It is a tribunal. It has no punitive powers. It generally acts on moral suasion. We may want to account for a variety of sanctions, some involving fines and imprisonment for a variety of offences ranging from plagiarism, source confidentiality to factual inaccuracy and advocating extremism. It is time that journalists in Malaysia exerted their leadership on the profession. Journalism is a whole gamut of corpus, not just writing, reporting, editing, visuals, etc. It is not only a practice of accuracy and objectivity, but structured in the philosophy of nation and nationhood.
Many developments and initiatives happened in the intervening period from the time the proposal was submitted. These included workshops and consultations specifically for the formation of an independent press council convened by Suhakam in 2002 and 2004. Among the recommendations from the two meetings were:
THE enactment of a Freedom of Information Act to provide more protection to the right to information and to safeguard the right of equal access to information;
THE Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) 1984 be reviewed with a view towards repealing the annual licensing provisions (the PPPA was amended to that effect in 2012);
REVIEWING the PPPA provisions on the powers of the minister;
REVIEWING the use of national security laws, such as the Official Secrets Act 1972, Internal Security Act 1960 and Sedition Act 1948 on the press;
THE establishment of an independent, impartial and self-regulating media council to enable journalists to exercise greater control over their profession, while improving the quality of journalism;
THE introduction of a code of ethics to improve journalistic standards and regulate journalist conduct; and,
THE introduction of press accreditation tags to be provided to all bona fide media practitioners in the country.
Between the Suhakam sessions of 2002 and 2004, there was a panel discussion organised by the Bar Council on “Independent Functioning of Media Council, Media Freedom and High Media Ethics”.
With new media technologies, self-regulation is a worthy goal through this impartial mechanism.
The press council is a mechanism through which the profession can regain its respect and integrity from the public. It is a platform for promoting and defending editorial and press freedom.
A critical media is not necessarily a subversive one. The daily Utusan Malaysia in the late 1970s and 1980s was quite vocal in providing criticisms and contrarian views on government through its editorial column (leaders). So was the New Straits Times through its editorial pieces. They took a strong position on an issue.
It may not be wise to enact a legislation banning political parties from owning news and media organisations. This is where a civilised ethos of expression comes in. For the media, distancing itself from partisan politics, and for political parties, reforming its political culture and expression.
Of note is that in the 2004 Suhakam consultations, the late journalism laureate Tan Sri Mazlan Nordin expressed the principle that only journalists have the locus standi to establish a press council. Mazlan, quite correctly, was being faithful to the canons of the profession.
The fraternity must stand up firmly to that ethos and revisit their profession. There is nothing wrong in being partisan, but it is a breach of conduct and practice to misrepresent in its reportage and opinions.
The fraternity must reestablish itself and return to the image of being rational and disinterested parties.
Datuk Dr A Murad Merican is a professor with the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia