TMI arrests will galvanise journalistic independence, academics and rights groups say

By Zurairi AR
Malay Mail Online
April 1, 2015

KUALA LUMPUR, April 1 — Independent journalism in Malaysia will continue to flourish and might even grow bolder due to public demand following the arrests of senior media personnel in The Malaysian Insider (TMI) and The Edge for alleged sedition, academics and rights groups have suggested.

Despite that, they conceded that the immediate effect will largely result in many news outlets toning down their editorial voice, considering there are still many reforms needed to ensure a free and fair media landscape in the country.

“Independent journalism will pause, reflect on what’s happening and why, and, I believe, will resist. You must remember that independent journalism in Malaysia as elsewhere — online and offline — emerged and grew in resistance to controls and coercion,” said Zaharom Nain, a vice-dean with University of Nottingham Malaysia’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

“These journalists — and new ones emerge all the time — are often not ‘cari makan’ individuals,” he added, using the Malay phrase that refers to “salary men”.

“They are here for a cause — if nothing else, to tell the truth as they see it. That won’t stop. Stupid, bumbling attempts at silencing them will only make them, however small in number, bolder,” warned Zaharom, who is also the founder of the university’s Centre for the Study of Communications and Culture (CSCC).

Online and independent media caught steam prior to the 2008 general elections as an alternative to the heavily-regulated mainstream media, which is dominated by publications owned by, or linked to, component parties of ruling coalition Barisan Nasional.

However, recent developments have resulted in the arrests of several journalists for alleged sedition and defamation suits by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak himself, leading some news firms to practise self-censorship to avoid unwanted attention.

“Press freedom will quickly erode in Malaysia as long as journalists continue to practise heavy self-censorship or face serious legal threats when they speak out,” said Judy Taing, a senior officer with London-based human rights group, Article 19.

“Freedom of expression is enshrined in the Malaysian constitution, however recent events suggest that it has become more of a privilege than a protected right,” she said.

After news portal Malaysiakini’s Penang-based reporter Susan Loone was probed for sedition in September last year, TMI became the next to be affected as four of its senior editorial members and their publisher were detained for alleged sedition this week.

However, Evelyn Balais-Serrano from the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia) advised against self-censorship, claiming that the situation now is much different from two or three decades ago although it remains a longstanding issue.

“Today, the demand for credible information from independent sources is much higher than ever before. Certainly, some media organisations will feel the heat and be pressured to exercise caution in their reporting as a result of the current situation.

“But in the long-term, the demand for independent and credible information will not wane, and will in fact be stronger”, said Evelyn, who is Forum-Asia executive director.

Not everyone was optimistic, with Gayathry Venkiteswaran of Bangkok-based Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa) predicting that the arrests will spook reporters when it comes to writing about “untouchable issues” such as religion and Malay rulers.

“In the immediate term, the impact could be to push journalists back behind the lines,” said Gayathry, who is Seapa’s executive director.

“The challenge has always been to get journalists from across the language and ownership to resist the censorship and intimidation together. Hopefully this latest case could spark a more united voice,” she said.

Sonia Randhawa of the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) also admitted to the much-needed reforms Putrajaya must take to regain the trust of the industry, especially with the laggard reform of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, and ongoing denial of print licenses to online news outlets.

“Unfortunately Putrajaya fails to recognise that an independent media is an asset to the government. It can help to weed out corruption and inefficiency, it pushes the government to be the best it can be, for the sake of all Malaysians. An echo chamber is unable to do that,” said CIJ director Sonia.

“So, yes, these actions will continue to undermine initiatives to push the boundaries on what can or cannot be reported, but it takes more than a lack of arrests to guarantee media independence,” she added, listing out the reform of the Sedition Act 1948 itself as one example.

“It’s up to Malaysian journalists and citizens to decide how much they value their media system, and how they want to fight to preserve and nurture its freedoms,” said CSCC director Tessa J. Houghton in an email interview.

Houghton also advised journalists to educate themselves on ways to safeguard themselves and their information, especially regarding sources, given the high stakes involved in some of the recent breaking stories.

“Access to information is as (or more) important for journalists as it is for the rest of us, and it only takes one (however unintended) breach of trust for the entire system to suffer,” said Houghton.

Last week, TMI ran a report citing an unnamed source as claiming that the Conference of Rulers had rejected proposed legal amendments that would allow hudud to be enforced.

This was later denied by the Keeper of the Rulers’ Seal, who also lodged a police report over the article.

TMI’s editors Lionel Morais, Zulkifli Sulong and Amin Iskandar were then arrested Monday night under the Sedition Act 1948 and the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 to assist in investigations.

The trio were released last night after a magistrate denied the police’s request for a remand order to hold them beyond 24 hours.

The news portal’s chief executive Jahabar Sadiq and Ho Kay Tat, CEO of The Edge Media Group that owns TMI, were arrested yesterday morning under the same laws when they went to the Dang Wangi district police headquarters to have their statements recorded.

The duo remain under detention at the Dang Wangi district police headquarters and will be taken to court later in the morning for a remand hearing.

Umno member Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah has since urged journalists to continue reporting without fear or favour despite the arrests.

Saifuddin, who is currently a columnist and used to be an editor, also conceded that things have gone from “bad to worse” now, amid a slew of investigations under the Sedition Act 1948 that have primarily targeted opposition politicians and social activists.

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