After the proposed Confidence and Supply Agreement, the new government should prioritise media reforms and establish the Malaysian Media Council (MMC).
The previous Perikatan Nasional (PN) government was not interested in media reforms as it was only concerned with keeping itself in power For example, there was frequent use of repressive laws such as the s233 Communications and Multimedia Act, and the (now revoked) Emergency ordinance was introduced to silence dissent. For the past 9 months, there were already 197 instances of oppressive laws being invoked, according to Centre for Independent Journalism media monitoring. The controversial allocation of 40.5 million to J-KOM (the then JASA)—widely known to be a government propaganda machinery in light of the COVID-19 pandemic—further evident this statement.
The fall of the Pakatan Harapan government saw the urgent need to curb disinformation. It is worth noting that the 6 months of racial commotion (July 2019 – February 2020) during its administration was triggered and exacerbated by disinformation and irresponsible media, which allowed the PN government to rise in the name of ‘unity of Malay’. Irresponsible media are partly to blame for the rise in the PN government and the health, political and economic crises that ensued today. Furthermore, disinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic also showed that media reforms and the establishment of the MMC were never essential.
Interestingly, there are increasing calls for responsible media reporting from civil servants and civil groups. The Director General of Health Dr Noor Hisham has openly called for responsible media reporting due to the worrying trend of suicide, which was echoed by Kenny Lim, the Executive Director of Befrienders KL, who highlighted that irresponsible reporting could have led to copycat suicides. A focus group discussion with the SEARCCT, an agency formed under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to prevent terrorism, revealed the way extremist organisations are using social media and irresponsible media to achieve the spread of extremist ideologies. These incidents accentuate the call for an MMC to be set in place to regulate irresponsible reporting.
Despite the newly appointed Media Minister Annuar Musa’s welcoming move to consult the public on their expectation on KKMM in his latest Twitter threads, we continue to see the worrying trend of limiting media coverage of Parliament’s proceedings. Only 16 media outlets are allowed to attend the proceedings from 13 September 2021 to 12 October 2021. Any move to restrict coverage from media organisations is detrimental to press freedom, especially when the Prime Minister himself advocates for institutional reforms and good governance.
General Election is likely to be held when the COVID-19 pandemic is under control. Malaysia is highly vulnerable to disinformation as evident in politically affiliated press (for example, MCA owned 40% of The Star). Malaysia was also previously involved in the Cambridge Analytical and Twitter bots scandal. It is also an open secret that political parties such as UMNO hires cyber troopers to sway public discussions. The latest General Election in the United States, DAP veteran Lim Kit Siang claimed, is a testimony to the power of disinformation; despite ignoring nearly a quarter of a million COVID-19 fatalities in the United States, Donald Trump nearly won. We need to prevent this from happening in Malaysia.
Malaysia is in dire need to move away from racial politics, and shift Malaysians’ discussion from the races to the betterment of the country. We need to focus our debate on good governance and institutional reforms. To achieve this, media reporting needs to be regulated by establishing the MMC and implementing other media reforms proposed by the pro-tem committee, such as repealing repressive laws, to ensure true information can be freely imparted and expressed.
Media reforms are pivotal to uphold our democracy. If the new government wishes to restore public trust, they need to show their commitment to institutional and media reforms.
Miaoling Ng is the Media Strengthening Officer at the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ). CIJ is a 20-year-old non-profit organisation that promotes freedom of expression and media reforms, and a member of the Malaysian Media Council pro-tem committee.