When Malaysian authorities denied popular news websites FZ Daily and Malaysiakini permission to publish newspapers, they gave two reasons: first, they wanted to control the rising number of newspapers in the country; second, they alleged that the two websites resort to “sensational and controversial” reporting in order to gain more readers.
Responding to a Parliamentary inquiry last month, Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi explained that the number of newspapers is already sufficient and an increase would “confuse the people”:
Denying the applications from FZ Daily and Malaysiakini is an early step towards controlling the flood of newspaper publications that may confuse the people if there are too many news being published by all sorts of newspapers.
He also accused the two news websites of practicing irresponsible journalism:
They are seen as inclin[ed] towards publishing sensational and controversial news to attract readers’ interest.
Malaysiakini first submitted its application to establish a print newspaper in 2010. It has since challenged the ruling of the Home Ministry and won the case in the Court of Appeals, but has not yet filed for a new application. Meanwhile, the FZ Daily was initially issued a newspaper permit last August, but the permit was then deferred after one week. It won a favorable ruling from the court last February, only to be rejected by the Ministry later that day.
It was only last month that the Ministry revealed the reasons why it rejected the applications of FZ Daily and Malaysiakini.
For Dr. Mustafa K. Anuar of the human rights group Aliran, the Ministry’s decision is “a gross affront to the people’s democratic right to freedom of the press and freedom of expression.” In a media statement for the organization, he added:
The Ministry’s unjust and undemocratic action certainly doesn’t add any credibility to the government’s boastful claim that Malaysia is “the best democracy in the world”. If anything, it only makes a mockery of the government’s claim and reinforces public impression that the government is intent on curbing and denying freedom to Malaysians.
Such purported concern about “the people getting confused” has increasingly become a popular refrain among the powers that be and serves as an excuse to censor or ban ideas – be they political, religious, economic or cultural – that expose the hypocrisy and shallow thinking of the leaders.
The government should have more confidence in the maturity and intelligence of ordinary Malaysians to discern sensational reporting from factual yet controversial journalism.
The issue also highlighted the need to review the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA 1984) which empowers the Ministry to grant, revoke and suspend licenses to newspapers, but has also been used to harass political organizations. For example, the government invoked the law when it revoked the permit of Suara Keadilan, the official newsletter of the opposition People’s Justice Party.
Early this year, Malaysian journalists protested the arbitrary decision of the government to suspend the license of The Heat magazine, which ran a story about the spending habits of the Prime Minister and his family.
The Southeast Asian Press Alliance believes the court victory of Malaysiakini should remind authorities that “publishing is a right and not a privilege”:
The court victory of Malaysiakini is an important milestone for press freedom in Malaysia, not only considering the media group’s experience of harassment from the government, but also because the judgement ruling that publishing “is a right not a privilege.”
FZ Daily, along with other more independent online news media, is going mainstream to challenge existing the complacency of the docile and subservient print news giants that have been privileged by the repression of press freedom under the PPPA.
A year after the election, government has turned out to be a pretend democracy because of consistent government interventions to curtail press freedom, among other civil liberties.
Malaysia's case is unique in this regard: while most countries in the region see newspapers closing down in favor of an Internet-only model, these sites are seeking to do the opposite. Government restrictions on publishing licenses seem to indicate that the printed word still carries a unique form of power in Malaysian society.