My Say: Freedom of the press a cornerstone of democracy

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 13, 2019 - May 19, 2019.
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May 9 marks the first anniversary of Malaysia’s 14th general election — an admirable exercise in democracy that led to a change in government for the first time in more than six decades of independence, through a peaceful and smooth transition of power.

A year has now passed and one notable achievement that Malaysia has been experiencing in that past year is a freer and more independent media. It is apparent that the media, traditional and electronic alike, are displaying greater objectivity and impartiality in its reporting. A multiplicity of media outlets are now expanding coverage beyond reporting merely positive aspects of the government to include also concerns and challenges facing the country.

This progressive shift in approach by the media and the enabling environment provided by the incumbent government to allow such balanced reporting through media freedom must be acknowledged and commended. In the 2019 World Press Freedom Index released by the Reporters Without Borders, Malaysia’s ranking improved by 22 places, topping other Asean member states.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of a free and independent media for a country’s long-term development and for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The media, which is considered the “Fourth Power”, is an indispensable component of any democracy, and plays a crucial role in empowering the people. It brings the work of the government to public attention and hence is an essential means through which the government can stay close to those they represent.

A free and independent media serves as a critical check and balance, notably in ensuring the full transparency and accountability of the state. A free press ensures that the government is responsive to the needs and interests of the people and provides essential feedback loops, thus enhancing the quality of public service delivery. The media contributes to good governance by uncovering and reporting on adverse policy decisions or corrupt practices. A free media promotes healthy competition between political parties by informing reliably and commenting diligently, therefore stimulating and orienting people’s opinions.

Equally important, a free and independent media is instrumental in the realisation and enjoyment of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. These two principles are essential for a fully functioning democracy and to build the foundation that will, ultimately, support Malaysia in achieving the significant commitments it has made to comprehensive institutional reforms.

In this regard, the United Nations in Malaysia welcomes the steps taken by the government to review relevant laws, including the Sedition Act 1948, the Printing Press and Publications Act 1984, the Official Secrets Act 1972 and the Film Censorship Act 2002. In addition, the government’s commitment to reforming Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 is most encouraging. The UN in Malaysia looks forward to the repeal of provisions within these laws that contravene human rights, as a means to ensure that the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to information and freedom of the press are fully respected.

In the endeavour to promote freedom of opinion, expression and that of the press, the unprecedented reach of social media presents a new challenge. In places around the world, we are witnessing the proliferation of hate speech and incitement to violence. The emergence and widespread use of social media requires that governments find an appropriate balance that effectively curbs hate speech while ensuring the protection of free speech.

International law outlines a three-part test for permissible restrictions on freedom of expression. Restrictions must be provided by law, which is clear, unambiguous, precisely worded and accessible to everyone.

Any restrictions provided by the law to eliminate hate speech must be imposed in a manner that is neither arbitrary nor discriminatory, and only for purposes of “protecting the rights and reputation of others” or “protecting national security, public order, public health and morals”. Such limitations must also be clearly defined to prevent broader interpretations, which may give rise to an abuse of power and enable the stifling of dissent and opposition. Laws and legal provisions that restrict the freedom of expression must be “formulated with sufficient precision to enable an individual to regulate his or her conduct accordingly”.

In addition, any punitive measures must be proportionate to the alleged offence committed. The drafting of these laws must involve meaningful consultations with all stakeholders including relevant government agencies, civil society and academia.

Finally, while laws are certainly a necessary and important component in addressing hate speech, they should be complemented by a broad set of non-legal and policy measures to facilitate an environment of tolerance, understanding, open debates and an exchange of ideas where everyone will be able to participate on an equal footing.

Notwithstanding these challenges, it is important that we constantly renew our call for a free and independent press so that it can effectively fulfil its cardinal role of reporting events and issues in an accurate, ethical and responsible manner.

The UN in Malaysia trusts that the above points will be given due consideration in the endeavour to further strengthen the right to freedom of media, opinion and expression in Malaysia. As the UN secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, highlighted at the occasion of the World Press Freedom Day recently: “A free press is essential for peace, justice, sustainable development and human rights. No democracy is complete without access to transparent and reliable information. It is the cornerstone for building fair and impartial institutions, holding leaders accountable and speaking truth to power.”


Stefan Priesner is a United Nations resident coordinator in Malaysia

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