Frankly speaking: Whither freedom of speech?

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 27, 2020 - May 03, 2020.
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Malaysia is now ranked 101st globally in the latest 2020 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). According to RSF, among 180 countries, Malaysia chalked up the most impressive increase, moving up 22 places to 101st position. With a lower score denoting a better performance, Malaysia’s score went down by 3.62 points to 33.12 in 2020.

In the 2020 index, Malaysia also outranks its peers in Asean — Indonesia, which placed 119; the Philippines, at 136; Myanmar, 139; Thailand, 140; Cambodia, 144; Brunei, 152; Singapore, 158; Laos, 172; and Vietnam, 175.

In stark contrast, just recently, a member of the press came under fire as Senior Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob denied having said that migrant workers living in Selangor Mansion and Malayan Mansion, which have been sealed, would have to fend for themselves when buying food.

Interestingly enough, although Ismail Sabri denied saying anything of the nature, he did say the respective embassies should take care of its people, which can be construed to mean that the Malaysian government will not be responsible for the immigrants and, hence, they will have to fend for themselves.

The senior minister later said stern action would be taken against news outfits that published “confusing and inaccurate” articles regarding government statements. He added that the police and the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia are monitoring such offences, “especially those involving statements from the government”.

What is also worrying is that as at April 23, a total of 238 investigative papers on fake news related to Covid-19 have been opened and 24 individuals have been charged.

While the need to prevent the spread of misinformation is important at this time, the government should note that there is a difference between constructive criticism or fair comment and simply labelling anything said against it as an offence or fake news.

Come next year, it is anyone’s guess how RSF would rate press freedom in Malaysia, with ministers threatening members of the media with investigations by the police and other agencies.

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