After years of repressive laws and political interference, can Malaysia’s new government pave the way for media freedom?

Until recently, there has been little hope for media freedom in Malaysia. Lingering towards the bottom of press freedom rankings like RSF’s World Media Freedom Index (145th), the country’s journalists have long been held at the behest of strict, archaic and vaguely written laws on sedition, defamation and fake news.

In recent years clampdowns have included the mass blocking of news websites, refusing print licenses and blocking reporters from entering the lobby of Parliament. Under former Prime Minister Najib Razak, laws such as the colonial-era Sedition Act and Official Secrets Act were reinforced or amended to encourage self-censorship. The Official Secrets Act was bolstered in March 2016 by an amendment that penalised whistleblowers and journalists using anonymous sources, introducing a maximum penalty of life imprisonment and 10 lashings.

In March, a month before this year’s general election, Razak rushed an anti-fake news bill through parliament, which allowed his government to issue fines of $122,000 and six-year jail sentences for anyone reporting what it defined as “fake news”. The bill was passed with a simple majority. This was widely seen as a direct attack on free speech and an attempt by the Prime Minister to muzzle critics from discussing scandals such as 1MDB, in which Razak is accused of embezzling $681million from a government agency.

New government

But the shock defeat of Najib’s National Front coalition in May by the opposition Hope Alliance, has renewed aspiration for media freedom across Malaysia. Elected largely on an anti-corruption manifesto, the new government has passed a Bill to repeal the anti-fake news law through parliament’s lower-house and promised to ease restrictions on the press more generally.

The new government, led by 93-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, has also proposed measures to cap ownership of media organisations by political parties to 10% in an attempt to limit manipulation and the spread of misinformation.

In an interview with BFM radio last week, Communications and Multimedia minister Gobind Singh Deo said: “You have got to start asking yourself, do you want media reporting to be influenced by any political agenda? If a particular news agency is owned by any political party, then there is a tendency you see media reports being slanted towards their end”.

Not so fast

However, there are a number of hurdles to achieving media freedom. Speaking at a regional forum on media freedom in July, Malaysiakini’s editor-in-chief, Steven Gan, noted 35 laws in need of repeal or amendment for free media to thrive. He cautioned that due to the mix of old and new faces in the current administration, and a Senate dominated by members of opposition party Barisian Nasional (BN), necessary changes could take up to five years to pass.

Sadly these warnings came to life this week. On 12 September the Senate, or upper-house, blocked efforts to repeal the anti-fake news law. The bill will now go back to the lower-house of parliament for another vote, which could take year to pass. A BN senator claimed that the opposition would prefer see the bill “improved” rather than scrapped despite its unpopularity.

This block is not only a serious setback for media freedom in Malaysia, but also for those seeking reform across the wider region. Countries such as Singapore and the Philippines are also considering controversial laws on fake news.

Earlier this year, Cambodia implemented an anti-fake news law aimed at websites and social media that could see violators fined $1,000 and jailed for two years. A number of independent media outlets have also been closed or sold in recent years, contributing to a substantial decline in freedom of expression.

There is certainly hope in the ambition of the Mahathir government but the hurdles it faces in hastily improving media freedom are substantial. Ensuring media freedom and space for independent media to thrive is essential for an effective, informed democracy and for a plurality of voices to be heard.

The PMA hopes that these setbacks will not slow the momentum for much needed reform.

By Kristian Porter

Header Image: Kuala Lumpur at dawn. Credit: Jorge Láscar/Creative Commons