Saturday, February 22, 2014

Malaysia: Publishing "still a privilege" in Malaysia, as newspaper licence revoked


21 February 2014
Southeast Asian Press Alliance

The Gerakan Media Marah (Geramm), a media advocacy NGO in Malaysia, recently launched a 'wear red' every Wednesday campaign to draw attention to the Home Ministry's recent revoking of a publishing permit earlier granted to The Edge Group to publish a new newspaper FZ Daily.

This is the second direct intervention of the Home Ministry on media companies since the indefinite suspension of The Heat news weekly in December 2013.

The Edge publishing group received a notice on 5 February 2014 revoking an earlier license granted to FZ Daily on 20 August 2013, but which was then suspended after a week on 28 August.

The Ministry, which is empowered by the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA 1984) to grant licenses to newspapers, has not given any reason for the revocation or the earlier suspension of the license.

Incidentally, the suspension of FZ Daily's printing license came two days before The Heat news weekly resumed publishing after their suspension since 21 December, for which no reason was likewise given.

The Home Ministry's suspension and eventual revocation of the FZ Daily's publishing permit happened around the widely-praised High Court decision for the Home Ministry to grant Malaysiakini's publishing permit on 30 October 2013.

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."

Yet, not only has the Home Ministry blatantly flouted the spirit of this ruling with The Heat and FZ Daily, it has not even bothered to explain why it has acted repressively, presumably in keeping with its main function to protect public interest and safety. Without explanations, how else can such acts be labelled as anything but 'unreasonable'?

Press freedom advocates interpret this court ruling not only to mean the right of prospective publishers to set up journals, but more importantly as it is the right of the public who deserve to have more choices in terms of information sources and diverse editorial perspectives.

These direct interventions on the media by the Home Ministry reveal how little the government has moved despite the 2012 promise of reforming the PPPA. The 'reform' that Malaysians eventually received was merely the removal of the annual renewal of publishing licenses, while the Home Ministry retained its powers to grant, suspend and revoke licenses.

The recent experience shows that this is clearly not enough, and emphasizes the need to fully repeal the Printing Presses and Publications Act.

Its refusal to explain the suspension and revocation makes Malaysia's Home Ministry the single biggest institutional obstacle to press freedom by acting as an untouchable gatekeeper of the media.

The public has a right to know the reasons for revoking the license. But then the Home Ministry's silence might be an indication that its motives are best hidden.

So far, the only probable reason for revoking FZ Daily's printing license was shared earlier on by The Edge Media Group owner, Tong Kooi Ong, in a blog post that seems to point to collusion among media companies seeking to protect their interests from competition.

FZ Daily, along with other more independent online news media, is going mainstream to challenge the existing complacency of the docile and subservient print news giants that have been privileged by the repression of press freedom under the PPPA.

Collusion as the reason behind the revocation of FZ Daily will be a terrible indictment of the Malaysia government's 2012 reform pronouncements, which have now turned out to be empty election campaign pretensions to democratize. A year after the election, the government has turned out to be a pretend democracy because of consistent government interventions to curtail press freedom, among other civil liberties. It may also turn out to be a pretend free market, with a government actively regulating the economy to protect well-established interests and even cronies.

For the Home Ministry, the best way out of this mess is not to take great pains to begin explaining its actions but to quietly grant the publishing permit and make its regulatory function merely perfunctory. After all, publishing is a right which only needs to be respected by governments.