– by Kee Thuan Chye
Sunday, 03 June 2012
LET’S be honest and admit it. The recent amendments to the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) have done nothing for press freedom. In fact, they show no signs of moving in that direction.
Relieving newspapers and other publications of the need to renew their licence annually is of no use if they are still subject to the threat of getting their licence suspended or revoked. The Home Minister still holds the power to implement that threat.
This means they still have to be cautious about what they publish. They are still controlled.
Of course, there is now another amendment that allows for the Home Minister’s decision to be challenged in court. That’s something new and seems a bit of a surprise. And the Government has come out to claim that it’s a big leap forward.
But if one considers that there could be more to this amendment than appears on the surface, it will not be such a surprise after all.
I suspect it was made because Barisan Nasional (BN) the party is hedging its bets. It was made in case at some point in the future, BN should lose power.
If that day should come and the new government under Pakatan Rakyat (PR) decided to be nasty to BN, it could instruct its Home Minister to revoke the licences of all the existing BN-owned newspapers, which currently make up almost the entire newspaper market.
Those affected would include Utusan Malaysia, Berita Harian, New Straits Times, The Star – the main spinners of BN propaganda.
If that were to happen and the Home Minister’s decisions could not be challenged in court, BN would be left with no print propaganda machinery whatsoever. With no recourse for appeal. And that would be unimaginable.
It is therefore to forestall such a disaster and protect its own interests that, I suspect, the BN government proposed the amendment.
But of course de facto Law Minister Nazri Aziz would make a big deal of it in other terms, and to try to make the rakyat feel grateful for the amendments. He said in a recent interview with theSun that “we now provide you with the avenue to take the matter to court (if you are unhappy with the Home Ministry), so where else do you want to go?”
That comes across as a pompous and arrogant question. And one that shows that he’s either ignorant or pretending to be so. Surely, he knows the answer.
Amending the PPPA is not the ultimate. The Act is still a deterrent to a free press. And keeping it such is probably why the amendments were hurriedly passed. When they were tabled in April, MPs had hardly any time to debate the amendments. If they did, the Opposition would have called for the Act to be repealed.
Indeed, the only way to liberate the press is to repeal the Act.
As it is, the Act continues to allow the Home Ministry to wield power in approving applications for publishing licences. This is one of its strongest controlling measures.
With this power, the incumbent government would invariably ensure that applications by the Opposition to start its own mass-market newspaper would be rejected. This, in fact, has been the case ever since the Act was passed in 1984.
So where’s the freedom?
By right, if we are to believe what Prime Minister Najib Razak has promised – that he wants to make Malaysia “the best democracy in the world” – there should not be any more need for a publication licence.
By right, anyone who has the inclination and the capital to start a publishing business should be able to do so without seeking approval from the Government. This would allow, so to speak, a thousand publications to bloom. This would allow a laissez-faire growth in the marketplace of ideas consistent with the principles of democracy.
But this will not happen as long as the Government does not want to allow the Opposition to set up its own newspapers freely and disseminate its own propaganda, in conflict with that of the Government’s.
And press freedom will not be a reality as long as the Government wants to exert control, even over the existing newspapers that already belong to the ruling coalition.
The bonus that comes with this is that if any of them did deviate, it would provide a wonderful opportunity for the ministry to intimidate the errant newspaper till it repented and atoned – by being even more subservient.
A good example is what happened in February to The Star. The newspaper went through hell after publishing a picture of the American entertainer Erykah Badu with the word “Islam” tattooed on her upper chest. The Home Ministry went after it like a rhinoceros after a rat. After The Star had published two apologies and suspended two of its senior editors for the faux pas, committed out of honest ignorance and not out of deliberate malice, Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein declared in public that he was still not satisfied.
Thenceforth, The Star became more closely watched and it got even more cautious of what it published. Any material considered the slightest bit risky would be rejected. At the same time, the newspaper became visibly more obsequious in its efforts to serve the Government’s cause.
Its coverage of Bersih 3.0 exemplifies this. It mainly sought to vilify the rally participants who were involved in the violence and downplay the police brutality that resulted from it. It refrained from highlighting the impact of the rally in calling for free and fair elections.
Would this be any different when the amendments to the PPPA are in place?
The answer would have to be “no”. The Star would still be afraid of the ministry. And so would independently owned newspapers.
The latter would still fear getting suspended or having their licence revoked. And they would think twice about taking the ministry to court while the independence of the judiciary is still in doubt.
Furthermore, going through a court process can take time. If a newspaper’s licence is revoked, it goes out of business immediately. If it takes the issue to court, a long time may elapse before the decision comes out. And even if the newspaper obtains a favourable verdict, it would nonetheless have lost a lot of momentum during its period of closure, and winning back its former glory and subscribers would not be easy.
Therefore, while in theory, taking the minister to court appears a bright proposition, in reality, it may not be so practical.
So, we’re back to where we started. The amendments to the PPPA are not, despite what the Government would have us believe, a leap forward.
The only leap forward that can be made is to repeal the PPPA.
* Kee Thuan Chye is the author of No More Bullshit, Please, We’re All Malaysians, now available in major bookstores in Malaysia and Singapore.