28 May 2012
Substantial Reforms Needed to Ensure Free and Fair Access to Media
On 22 May, Minister of Information, Communications and Culture Rais Yatim announced that a cabinet paper is being prepared on RTM providing equal media access for parties to present their election manifestos. While BERSIH 2.0 acknowledges that a move is finally being made towards ensuring free and fair media access during elections, we are of the view that this is but the first step. Free and fair access, BERSIH 2.0’s #4 demand, cannot be achieved by merely allocating airtime for manifestos of candidates and/or political parties. Equal and proportionate airtime in news and other programmes must be given to all parties and candidates, as well as balanced coverage, including the right to reply to any allegations or negative reporting.
BERSIH 2.0 is of the view that it is equally, if not more, important to address the factors contributing to poor free and fair access to media in Malaysia. There are more crucial issues that need to be addressed before the demand for free and fair access to media is fulfilled.
1. Media ownership
Mass media are either state-owned (Bernama and RTM) or privately owned largely by component parties of the Barisan Nasional (BN) or individuals with close links to the BN. This represents a huge and unfair advantage for the ruling government.
The lack of diversity of private ownership of the media can be attributed to the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, by which the Home Affairs Minister had absolute discretionary powers to grant, revoke or suspend licences and printing permits, and to impose any conditions. Licenses and permits had to be annually renewed. Those affected had no recourse to the courts, whose jurisdiction was ousted by law. Any publication that publishes content that is deemed to be critical of the ruling coalition faces the threat of suspension or revocation of permits. The arbitrary use of these powers has contributed to the concentration of ownership by individuals supporting BN. Recent changes in the law to do away with annual licenses and permits, and to allow for legal challenges to decisions of the Minister, have yet to come into effect but in any event are too new to have an impact in the 13th General Election. It remains to be seen how any such challenge will be dealt with by the courts.
At the same time, Malaysiakini.com has tried to apply for a permit to print a paper-based version of the online newspaper, but has faced resistance from the Home Ministry. Other publications by opposition parties have also been banned on numerous occasions, especially closer to a General Election.
2. Content control
Malaysian laws, mainly the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, Sedition Act 1948 and Official Secrets Act 1972, contribute to control of content published in the media. The laws provide for wide discretionary powers to the Home Minister and the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission to regulate content or prosecute any individuals for publishing content deemed to be false or a threat to public order.
Existing laws and the arbitrary application of the law make it difficult for mainstream media outlets to publish content that is critical of the establishment without the risk of serious repercussion such as prosecution or suspension or revocation of licenses.
Restrictive laws and concentrated media ownership by the ruling coalition contribute to the practice of self-censorship and political bias by media practitioners.
BERSIH 2.0 believes that merely to allow the airing of each party’s election manifesto is superficial at best and does not even scratch the surface of fulfilling the demand for free and fair access to media. To add to these concerns, the Minister of Information, Communications and Culture was quoted as saying the manifestos would be aired depending on their newsworthiness. This cannot be correct. Voters must have access to adequate information to make an informed choice during elections and the media plays a critical role in facilitating this. A clean, free and fair election is not possible without free and fair access to media by all candidates and contesting political parties, and balanced reporting. As such, safeguards against political censorship, unfair government advantage, unequal access and biased reporting must be established.
The following are BERSIH 2.0’s recommendations to ensure free and fair access to media before, during and after elections:
a. The Elections Act should be amended to compel state-owned media to allocate reasonably equal free airtime to contesting parties and candidates. In addition, live public debates between leaders of component parties should be televised.
b. The Election Offences Act should be amended to ensure fair access to private media for all contesting parties and candidates. This includes fair access to paid advertisements. Any media outlets that practise unreasonable discrimination for access to advertising can be prosecuted.
c. The Election Offences Act should be amended to make an offence of any deliberate denial to any contesting party or candidate the right to reply (and to have that reply published) towards any allegations made against them.
d. The EC should establish a code of conduct for media to govern the reporting of the election campaign and the polling period;
e. The Printing Press and Publications Act, 1984 and the Communications and Multimedia Act, 1998 must be amended to remove restrictions on content regulation and to broaden media ownership. Repressive laws that contradict democratic and human rights principles such as the Sedition Act 1948 and Official Secrets Act 1972 must be repealed.
These recommendations and the seven other BERSIH 2.0 demands must be implemented before the 13th General Elections
Keluar Mengundi, Lawan Penipuan!
Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections 2.0 (BERSIH 2.0)
The Steering Committee of BERSIH 2.0 comprises:
Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan (Co-Chairperson),