On the 1999 World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 1999, in what had been described as “an unusual show of defiance” , a petition for more press freedoms, signed by 581 journalists from 11 newspapers was handed to Abdullah by a delegation of 15 reporters.
A smiling Abdullah told the delegation: "I shall read it. I will let you know."
The petition, which called for the repeal of the Printing Presses and
Publications Act to allow the local media to take on a more independent
"There is a growing feeling among the public that the local media cannot be trusted, that it is controlled by the government. We call on you to repeal the act in order for mainstream media to regain its independence and credibility in the eyes of the public.
"Questions have been raised as to the mainstream media's ability to report the news fairly, given the fact that newspapers are required under the Printing Presses and Publications Act to apply to the government for their licence to be renewed annually to continue to operate.
"Troubling still are accusations that local journalists are merely a part of the government's propaganda machine and not professionals performing their duties to the best of their ability.
"This perception, rightly or wrongly, has resulted in more and more people turning to alternative sources of information, namely the Internet, foreign news reports as well as opposition party publications."
The petition argued there were existing libel laws to safeguard against irresponsible journalism.
"We realise there is a need for a check and balance system and so propose that instead of the Act, the press be regulated by an independent body."
Twelve months later, on the occasion of the 2000 World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 2000, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) added a few hundred more signatures to the petition the previous year to exceed a total of more than 950 signatories and the petition for more press freedoms was again presented to Abdullah.
What has been the outcome of Abdullah’s “reading” for the past two years of the memorandum by one thousand journalists of Malaysian mainstream media calling for more press freedoms to regain the credibility of the local press?
The memorandum by some one thousand Malaysian journalists from 11 newspapers has debunked the government claim that the Malaysian mainstream press are free and independent or that the local journalists are proud or willing agents of a muzzled press.
Abdullah should not resort to the hackneyed, sterile and fallacious argument that there can be no place for absolute or unlimited press freedom in Malaysia.
Every one can agree with him that press freedom must have limits, as no one, whether the thousand journalists in their memorandum in the last two World Press Freedom Day, the DAP, Barisan Alternative or the civil society, is asking for absolute press freedom above the law but only for more press freedoms without which there can be no true transparency, accountability, good governance and the rule of law.
During the World Press Freedom Day last year, journalists expressed concern that the print media were still subjected to licensing laws whereas online newspapers were not.
The chairman of the Asian Institute for Development Communication Datuk
Mazlan Nordin said freedom of expression was evident on the Internet but
their print counterparts.
He said: "Through the Internet, we are witnessing the birth of the individual freedom to act as receivers or transmitters, and also as authors to an unlimited audience."
National Press Club president Zainon Ahmad was rather optimistic that progress though slow would be made on the front of press freedom, expressing the hope that "Maybe next year, we can celebrate World Press Freedom Day by looking at how much we have progressed” and referring to the 13 pieces of legislation which affect the Press, said:
"We may have 12 laws instead of today's 13, or maybe a new law banning political parties from owning shares in media organisations."
All these have proved to wishful thinking, and Malaysian journalists and the people as a whole would be lucky if in next year’s World Press Freedom Day the country does not have 14 laws muzzling the press.
It is the nation’s misfortune that before Abdullah could announce the outcome of his two-year study on the petition by some one thousand Malaysian journalists for the abolition of the Printing Presses and Publications Act to allow the local media to be free, independent and responsible, the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad has announced a new offensive against press freedom.
A fortnight ago, Mahathir initiated a new attack against freedom
of expression, denounced his imaginary enemy of “total freedom of the press”,
claimed that messages have been posted on the Internet calling for him
to be killed although nobody else has seen them and announced the review
Printing Presses and Publications Act to make it more “relevant” even if its means violating the Multimedia Super Corridor Bill of Guarantee of no Internet censorshilp to the IT world.
I do not know whether Mahathir would be named for a third consecutive year in the list of the 10 worldwide "Enemies of the Press" by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists on the occasion of the 2001 World Press Freedom Day on Wednesday, but he has now undoubtedly become the greatest threat to press freedom in his 20 years as Prime Minister.
Abdullah has publicly stated that it was Mahathir who suggested study of the Printing Presses and Publications Act to deal with the Internet media, but he should let Parliament and Malaysians know the outcome of his study in the past two years in connection with the petition of the thousand Malaysian journalists for the abolition of the Printing Presses and Publications Act with regard to the print media.
In his Ministerial statement in Parliament, Abdullah should commit the government to more press freedoms in Malaysia, not to achieve “total”, “unlimited” or “absolute” press freedom, but for the emergence of a free, independent and responsible press without which Malaysia can never achieve its destiny as a great, prosperous and progressive nation.
The government should formally recognise the World Press Freedom Day and turn it into an occasion where the government and the public join the journalists to realise the importance of the freedom of the press in Malaysia.
Abdullah should explain who is conducting the review of the Printing Presses and Publications Act on how it could be used to censor the Internet media, and whether in keeping with the new culture of an Information Age, the government would issue a Green Paper to explain the government’s intentions in such a review and fully involve the civil society in all stages of the review.