Suhakam should set up a fifth Working Group on Press Freedom to arrest the alarming erosion of the rights to freedom of speech, expression and the press particularly in the past year

Media Statement 
by Lim Kit Siang

(Petaling Jaya,  Friday): Three years ago, when Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was first appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister, there were hopes that he would accord priority to restore public confidence in the institutions of government by giving the Home Ministry a human face, including loosening up and removing the press controls  in the country to usher an era of free, fair and responsible  press in  Malaysia.  

This was why on the occasion  of the World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 1999, some 600 journalists in Malaysia - which grew to over 1,000 journalists the following World Press Freedom Day 2000 -  presented a memorandum to Abdullah calling for the repeal of the Printing Presses and Publications Act  and other repressive laws fettering the development of a free and responsible press. 

Abdullah had given a solemn undertaking to the Malaysian journalists that he would give their memorandum serious consideration.  What is the outcome of such serious consideration after four World Press Freedom Days from 1999 to 2002?  

There had been no policy pronouncements from Abdullah but Malaysian journalists, civil society and citizenry are entitled to be alarmed that there is not only no  loosening and removal of the press controls, but the reverse after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States has taken place, as highlighted by the blackout  in the mainstream electronic and English/Malay print media  of news of  the anniversary hunger strike by the six reformasi activists detained under the Internal Security Act demanding for public trial or immediate release and widespread criticisms and protests over the appointment of former Attorney-General Tan Sri Abu Talib Othman as the new Suhakam Chairman, the dropping of the three most industrious, conscientious and committed Suhakam Commissioners and the stacking of the new appointees with former civil servants and a serving public employee. 

The three-month suspension with immediate efect  imposed by the Home Ministry under the Printing Presses and Publications Act  on the weekly tabloid Perdana Sari on the eve of the World Press Freedom Day 2002 have brought to the fore what is wrong with the vast and  repressive  press control powers of the government.  

The reason for the Home Ministry suspension of Perdana Sari was its sensational allegation of misconduct against Puteri UMNO protem chief, Azalina Othman.  

I am no advocate or defender of Perdana Sari or its publisher and chief editor, Khalid Jafri, the author of the book 50 Dalil Mengapa Anwar Tidak Boleh Jadi PM (50 Reasons why Anwar Ibrahim Cannot Be The Prime Minister).  

The Home Ministry action against Perdana Sari however raises several public interest issues.   Firstly, if the Home Ministry is of the view that Perdana Sari had been irresponsible in its reporting, why Perdana Sari or Khalid Jafri had not been charged in court for the offence of “false news” under the Printing Presses and Publications Act.  

Secondly, is the Home Ministry setting a precedent where it would take action, including immediate suspensions against national dailies and publications, if they publish “sensational” allegations against political  leaders, whether in government or opposition without the application of double standards?  

Without going into the rights and  wrongs of the Perdana Sari allegations, the Home Ministry’s three-month suspension raises serious questions about press controls which must concern not only journalists but the civil society as well.  

One human rights area which had been sorely neglected by  Suhakam, in its first two-year term under the chairmanship of Tan Sri Musa Hitam, was on the freedom of speech, expression and the press. 

The time has come for Suhakam to give a special focus on the freedom of speech and expression, whose importance is testified by their description as the “mother of all freedoms”, in its statutory responsibility to protect and promote human rights.  

Towards this objective, Suhakam should set up a fifth  Working Group on Press Freedom to arrest the alarming erosion of the rights to freedom of speech, expression and the press particularly in the past year, to receive and investigate complaints by journalists as well as Malaysians of violations of press freedom as well as freedom of speech and expression. 

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Information Ministry, Zainuddin Maidin said yesterday that Malaysia’s  media practitioners  should not be “the dog of western media imperialists”. I can agree with Zainuddin on this, but is Zainuddin prepared to agree that this should not be an excuse for them to become “the dog of local media oppressors”?


*Lim Kit Siang - DAP National Chairman