The Malaysian government is considering repealing a restrictive media law and creating an independent watchdog to regulate the industry.
Malaysian journalists are negotiating with the authorities to establish an independent “media council” to regulate the news industry. The council would assume a role that has belonged solely to the government since independence from Britain in 1957.
Last month, representatives of the Malaysian prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, met with a dozen interested groups to discuss the proposals. Officials want a plan that parliament can enact by the end of the year.
The PPPA gives the government power to close down media organisations or suspend operations. The government has financial stakes in most mainstream media outlets and a number of other laws that allow it to muzzle the media, including the Communications Act and the sedition and official secrets acts.
The government of former prime minister Najib Razak used these laws to curb reporting on 1MDB, a state investment vehicle aimed at developing the country’s economy. Razak is on trial for his alleged involvement in looting the fund, from which more than $4.5bn (£3.4bn) was reportedly stolen. Razak, who denies any wrongdoing, lost a general election in May 2018, after the opposition capitalised on public mistrust of his government.
The first exposé on the scandal was by the website Sarawak Report in February 2015. The government reacted by banning the site, citing “activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy” and “spreading false news”, according to its founder, British journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown.
In July 2015, the Edge newspaper group published further stories on the fund. Days later, the Edge weekly was banned from publishing for three months under PPPA as the home ministry branded their coverage “prejudicial or likely to be prejudicial to public order”.
“It is a situation where the government has so much power, to the point where really it’s hard for journalists to do anything,” said Steven Gan, editor-in-chief of independent news site Malaysiakini. “If this new government can implement those reforms, that will send us, hopefully, on a path where whoever is in power will not be able to do so much damage.”
Mahathir, who heads the Pakatan Harapan coalition, came to power promising several pro-democratic reforms, including greater press freedom.
Reformers are cautiously optimistic. In 1987, during Mahathir’s last tenure as prime minister, four newspapers were suspended during a mass crackdown on dissent.
By 2001, the Committee to Protect Journalists had named Mahathir one of the 10 “worst enemies of the press,” a list that included Fidel Castro and Vladimir Putin.
“We’re hoping that he really has had an epiphany and understands that he was brought to power on a pretty genuine democratic mandate,” said Shawn Crispin, senior south-east Asia representative for CPJ. “Eyes wide open, because we remember very well who Mahathir was.”
Some argue the underlying conditions have changed in Malaysia, and that Mahathir’s new political allies – if not the man himself – have the will to deliver.
The proposed media council, which would resemble watchdogs like the UK’s Independent Press Standards Organisation, would offer a first port of call for members of the public or government wishing to complain about news coverage. It would aim to raise ethical and journalistic standards across Malaysia.
“The government wants to see a free press, free from fear of being sued in the court of law; free from being imposed with million-dollar penalties through the court processes,” said Kadir Jasin, a retired newspaper editor now serving as Mahathir’s media adviser. “What we’re looking for is that it will reduce the necessity to bring dissatisfaction with the media to the courts.”
Specific details, such as how much power the council should have, who will fund it, and who will sit on its committee, are yet to be decided.