The Malaysian Bar reiterates its call for the repeal of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, and for the establishment of an independent Media Council.
The Malaysian Bar calls into question the recent decision by the Ministry of Home Affairs to suspend indefinitely the publication permit of the weekly publication The Heat. No clear explanation has been given for their decision to do so.
It appears from news media reports that the decision to suspend the publication permit for The Heat was made before the publisher had been given the right to be fully heard pursuant to section 13B of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 or before the process of being heard had been completed.
An indefinite suspension is an oxymoron, that is, a contradiction in terms, and is effectively a revocation. The indefinite suspension of The Heat would appear to be in breach of Article 13 of the Federal Constitution, which provides that no person shall be deprived of property save in accordance with law. Article 13 does not mean merely following the written law, but adhering to the due process of the law and natural justice.
The timing and speed of such indefinite suspension by the Ministry of Home Affairs gives rise to the perception that the Government is seeking to muzzle and punish a member of the media for an article it published in its 23 to 29 Nov issue headlining a report on the alleged “big spending” of the Prime Minister.
The suspension of The Heat is an unwarranted attack on the freedom of the press specifically, and an attack on freedom of speech and expression generally. Action against The Heat is merely the latest event in a long list of State actions to suppress the press. Other instances include incidents during which the Minister of Home Affairs harassed a Malaysiakini journalist who was asking him questions, and threatened to shut down newspapers that reported his speech in Malacca on the following day; and the physical assault and abuse of media professionals by the police during the BERSIH 3.0 public assembly in Kuala Lumpur on 28 April 2012.
A free press is a fundamental feature of a vibrant and accountable democracy. An independent press acts as a disseminator of information, and as a check and balance of elected representatives and government. The wellbeing of a democratic nation is dependent on, amongst other things, a healthy, professional, ethical and independent press.
The Malaysian Bar reiterates its position that the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 should be repealed. It is offensive to the constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression enshrined in Article 10 of the Federal Constitution. 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. The recent court decision against the Ministry of Home Affairs, in relation to Malaysiakini’s application for a newspaper licence, is a reminder of this.
This is not to say that a newspaper, or any publication (whether print or online), is at liberty to publish anything with impunity. It is time that Malaysia provides for independent regulation of the press media. Complaints regarding objectionable press stories and material should be dealt with by an independent Media Council to be established — consisting of journalism practitioners and civil society representatives, and with minimal or no government representation — or, alternatively, a Media Ombudsperson. Such a Media Council or Media Ombudsperson should be able to regulate media owners, publishers, editors, and journalists regarding offensive content and conduct.
There should be a clear separation between the role and purview of owners of media, and professional journalists and management. There should be no pressure or interference by owners of media in the management of editorial and news content of any publication. Any breach of such restrictions should be dealt with by the Media Council or the Media Ombudsperson.
Additionally, the press is liable to be held to account by the law just as any Malaysian citizen, for example, the laws on defamation.
Malaysia needs, and Malaysians deserve, a free and independent press, as well as a press that is ethical, responsible and fair.
28 December 2013