Malaysian journalists and activists banded together and organized a ‘red pencil’ protest early this month to protest a state-ordered suspension of weekly news magazine The Heat for an indefinite period. Protesters accused authorities of suspending The Heat in retaliation for publishing a story on the spending habits of the Prime Minister and his wife.
More than 200 people gathered to demonstrate in downtown Kuala Lumpur, the country’s capital. Participants belonged to the Gerakan Media Marah (Geramm) or Angry Media Movement, a loose coalition of journalists formed to push for greater media freedom in the country.
During the protest, red pencils were broken in half to symbolize the violence perpetrated against the media. Fathi Aris Omar, spokesman of Geramm and editor of online media site Malaysiakini, explained further the meaning of the red pencil:
The red pencil represents journalists who were injured (in the past, by the authorities) and a culture of control by the powers that be.
Listen to the breaking sound. That is the suffering of journalists and the media when it is ‘broken’.
Geramm has eight demands addressed to the government. Aside from calling for the withdrawal of the suspension order against The Heat, the network is also pushing for the easing of the tight media regulation in the country. Some of the other demands include the following:
Abolish the publication permit which is made mandatory under the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) 1984.
Allow all media practitioners to cover government events and access to public buildings for news gathering purposes.
Apologise to media practitioners for any breach of media freedom and rights.
The controversial PPPA was invoked by the government when it suspended The Heat. Malaysian journalists and activists are demanding the repeal of the law which they argue institutionalizes media censorship in the country.
The appeal for the review of the law was supported by Christopher Leong, president of the Malaysian Bar:
It is an archaic piece of legislation that no longer holds any relevance in a modern democracy. The Act has been used and abused to influence, bully, intimidate, threaten and punish the press. Such legislative and governmental control of the press, including licensing regimes, should end.
Prominent activist and Bersih (clean) founder Ambiga Sreenavasan attended the protest and noted the political importance of the gathering:
This is one of the first times I have seen journalists come together fighting for this very important fight. I know you are not just fighting for online or specific media, you’re fighting for all journalists. For me, this is about your self-worth and integrity as journalists.
Ambiga founded the Bersih a few years ago to push for electoral reforms.
Meanwhile, journalist Eric Loo criticized mainstream media for tolerating censorship in the country. He asked Malaysian netizens and the alternative media to persist in reporting the truth:
Let’s refuse to buy their interpretation of political realities, their version of history. It’s time we tell our own stories and circulate online what we know to be true, stories that reflect today’s political realities than those framed by the mainstream media.