The memo signed by the 581 journalists


May 3 1999

YB Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi
Home Minister
Home Ministry of Malaysia
Jalan Dato  Onn
50546 Kuala Lumpur.

Dear Sir:

Today is World Press Freedom Day.  It is an important day, for it serves to remind us that journalists are ethically and morally bound to report the news accurately and fairly, without fear or favour.

Recent political events in Malaysia have further reinforced the importance of the local media’s role as a credible source of information.

Of late however, this credibility has been questioned, not just by the opposition parties and long time critics of the establishment, but by ordinary members 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 license to be renewed annually in order 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. Such accusations cast a slur on a noble profession meant to serve public interest.

We further note that 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 such as Harakah.

This can be seen as a positive development that reflects the democratisation of information.

However, it is vital the mainstream media not lose its credibility and influence among its readers. As we have seen over the past few months, when people find it difficult to believe the news reported in the mainstream press, even when the report is accurate, it renders the media quite ineffective in playing its role.

This being World Press Freedom Day, we feel it is particularly apt that we ask for the repeal of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984.

It would be the first step towards the local media taking on a more independent role and regaining public trust.

Journalists presently working under the Acts’ spectre, have found reporting the news without fear or favour increasingly difficult. Self-censorship, because of tight government control, has found its way into the news room, an unfortunate circumstance given that a journalists’ guiding principle should always be to report the news as he or she sees it, and with as much balance and accuracy as is humanly possible.

We understand that in the past, there was a belief that certain controls needed to be imposed on the media to ensure that irresponsible and scurrilous journalism would not create chaos and social unrest in Malaysia.

However, we strongly believe there are compelling arguments to be made in favour of abolishing the Act. They are as follows:

- Existing libel laws more than adequately safeguard against irresponsible journalism as well as provide legal recourse for parties who feel they’ve been wronged.

- The local media have over the years shown themselves to be mindful of the fact that we live in a multi-ethnic society.

- So long as the Act exists, with all its attendant controls on the media - the power to shut down a newspaper, withdraw a publisher’s license indefinitely and ‘arrest without warrant any person found committing any offence under this act’ - the local press will continue to be viewed with a certain amount of distrust by ordinary Malaysians.

- The arbitrary and absolute powers of the Home Ministry over the local press, only serves to reinforce the impression that Malaysia is undemocratic, with an opaque and authoritarian system of administration.

As Malaysians we hold dear the rights and privileges enshrined in our Federal Constitution. Among them are free speech and freedom of expression, rights which are not reflected in the Printing Presses and Publications Act.

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; a council comprising professionals within the industry, other distinguished members of society such as lawyers, former judges and academics.

As Malaysia enters a new millenium and we become a developed nation, the local media has to develop and grow as well. Local journalists have an important role to play in creating an informed and knowledge-based Malaysian society. But to do that we need a greater level of independence.

The country is in the midst of great change. Ordinary Malaysians are making it known they want greater freedom to voice dissenting views.

The Government has understood the necessity of the Internet remaining uncensored and has avoided over- regulating cyberspace, realising such curtailments would only hinder the country’s objective of becoming a regional centre of information.

It is hoped the government will take the same view with regard to the mainstream media, and look into the abolition of the Printing Presses and Publications Act.

It is our sincere belief that such a move can only be for the greater good of Malaysia.

Signed by
581 journalists