IS the media in Malaysia free? Not really, said Reporters Without Borders last year.
The 2018 World Press Freedom Index (WPFI) compiled by Reporters Without Borders, more famously known as Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), ranked Malaysia 145 out of 180 countries.
A naughty boy in the league of nations, you may say. We were even behind freshly-minted South Sudan (144), which, by the way, is perpetually at war with itself.
More bafflingly, Myanmar, the land of genocide, was ahead at 137. Another befuddling score is that of Lithuania at 36. Surely Malaysia deserves better.
This year, RFP gave us a pat on the back. Malaysia moved up 22 places to 123. We are at the top of the Southeast Asian table, unsurprisingly leaving Singapore trailing at 151.
According to RSF, press freedom in Malaysia received a “breath of fresh air” with the change of government on May 9 last year.
Black-listed journalists and media outlets have been able to resume working without fear of harassment, this newspaper quoted RSF as it made the index public.
The general environment for journalists is much more relaxed and the print media are now offering a more balanced range of viewpoints, RSF opined.
Is the pen really mightier now, some ask. We in the media accept the reality that there cannot be absolute freedom. No such freedom exists anywhere in the world.
Not even in the land of the First Amendment — the United States. Our Federal Constitution too — having granted the right to freedom of speech and expression in Article 10(1)(a) — spells out the limits in Article 10(2)(a): Parliament may by law impose restrictions. And all we in the media ask is what an English Law Lord once expressed on our behalf: let the need for any restriction on the freedom of the press be proportionate and no more necessary to promote the legitimate object of the restriction.
But this shouldn’t blunt the role of the press, which is to keep the government honest. To cite an old argument, a free media is vital for democracy to thrive.
It helps people understand issues of public import. So informed, a reading public moves the nation forward. Besides, free press breeds first class journalism. And first class journalism promotes better citizenship.
A free media is good for the government too. A free press will no doubt hold the powerful to account, but it also provides space for a healthy and intelligible debate.
Debates and dialogues are the pith and marrow of a free and democratic nation. In such an environment, RSF and similar entities will rate us high. So will foreign investors.
The link between WPFI and foreign investments isn’t as tenuous as some think. Rating agencies do keep an eye on such things. A top score — say 30 — in WPFI is one route to Malaysia’s prosperity.
After all, a good reputation has its own attraction: new investments, better credit rating and inflow of new talent. This makes the hiring of expensive consultants unnecessary. Just promote free press.
Target WPFI 30 means promoting a just, tolerant and enlightened society. Thus we must raise the free press bar. Collectively.