When Prime Minister Najib Razak hosted the annual Premier Media Night on 14 May, he was no doubt hoping to charm his supporters and boost morale. But behind the glittering event and the expensive prizes on offer, including a new Peugeot 408 worth RM100,000, there was little to celebrate.
It has been a tumultuous few months for the media in Malaysia. Scores of media workers as well as academics, NGO workers and opposition supporters have been arrested and could face lengthy prison sentences. Journalists are uneasy and feeling increasingly under threat by over-regulation, legal attack and the threat of arrest.
The Malaysian media is one of most controlled in the world. In its 2015 report, Reporters Sans Frontiers ranked Malaysia 147 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom index. The Government's recent strengthening of the Sedition Act will do nothing to stem its slide down the ranks of press freedom. Among the amendments, the authorities will now be allowed to ban or block online content deemed seditious. Infringements could mean a jail sentence of three to 20 years. Human rights defenders and NGOs have cried foul.
In an increasingly polarised media landscape in which print, TV and radio is dominated by the ruling party and the internet is increasingly the province of the opposition, just how much free and fair media is left to salvage? Malaysians have few options when it comes to well-sourced, verified and unbiased information.
For years, the ruling coalition has controlled much of the traditional news media, leaving the internet open to become the most effective space for the opposition to have its voice heard.
Malaysians have grown accustomed to their television and newspaper reports being toothless and devoid of analysis. Newspapers, radio and TV have been largely controlled by Prime Minister Najib Razak's ruling party, The United Malays National Organisation (UNMO) or those affiliated with it under the Barisan Nasional (BS) coalition, through a combination of political and regulatory controls such as the Printing Presses and Publication Act and the Sedition Act.
Until now, online media has not been subject to such control. A founding principle of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's MSC Malaysia digital vision was that government censorship of the internet would not be permitted. Until the recent changes to the Sedition Act, the internet remained uncensored. Independent media and opposition groups seized the opportunity to set up news portals publishing content unlikely to be approved to run elsewhere.
Many thousands have turned to online news sites such as The Malaysian Insider, Malaysiakini and a number well known blogs that have gained a large following from those looking for an alternative to state-run or state-sanctioned media. But this ghettoisation of content has had a disturbing effect. The result has been an increasing partisan media that often fails to adhere to basic journalistic tenets.
The controversial amendments to the Sedition Act, a law that dates back to British colonial rule, came after weeks in which scores of journalists, academics and civil rights leaders had been charged under the rule. Among those arrested was Ho Kay Tat, the well-known publisher of The Edge, which had published a series of reports questioning the management of 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), raising questions about possible corrupt practices. On 3 April, the cartoonist Zulifiki Anwar Uljaqur , known as Zunar, was arrested after he published a series of tweets and cartoons in response to the imprisonment of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on sodomy charges. The chief executive of The Malaysian Insider, along with the managing editor and the Bahasa news editor, were arrested over the reporting of Islamic criminal laws or hudud.
The Government contends that, in multi-racial Malaysia, the Sedition Act is needed to quell religious intolerance and racism. While Najib had pledged to repeal the law in 2012, he backtracked in 2014, stating that the law was needed to protect Islam. But others accuse Najib's ruling government of using the law as a political tool. Najib is facing challenges to his leadership of UNMO and has been heavily criticised for his handling of the 1MDB development fund, which is more than US$1 billion in debt.
It's not clear what will happen to those already charged. It remains to be seen if they will be put on trial and possibly imprisoned or whether the heavy-handed arrests will only be used as a warning to others. What's clear is that the ruling party is increasingly digging a hole for itself. By using the Sedition Act as a selectively mobilised piece of legislation to target journalists, it is courting national and global criticism. The biggest loser is the public. 'Where can you find good information about Malaysia?' is a question often asked. For now, there is no simple answer.
Photo by Flickr user Gavin Firkser.