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Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The CIJ FoE 2010 Report - Dark days past, darker days ahead?

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To say that in Malaysia, one is not allowed to freely express one’s self would be inaccurate. To say that there is true Freedom of Expression in this country would be equally off the mark.

What we do have is a tightly controlled environment, where expressing one’s self is like playing the lottery – in most cases you’d get away with saying what you feel like, but you run the risk of getting yourself into some very hot soup. Not very tasty hot soup, either.

Last Saturday, the 2010 Freedom of Expression in Malaysia report, by the Center for Independent Journalism (CIJ) was featured on BFM 89.9’s Incident Room segment of their Week In Review program. On air to talk to host Richard Bradbury were the center’s Executive Officer Masjaliza Hamzah, and Project Coordinator/Media Monitor Ding Jo-Ann.

You can listen to the podcast by clicking the ‘Play’ button above. While 2010 wasn’t much different from 2009 in terms of restrictions on freedom of expression, what is of immediate concern is the recently announced Online Media Guidelines (via The Star), and its impact on freedom of expression in Malaysia.

Could it be that the introduction of these guidelines is an attempt by the Malaysian Government to control what they currently are unable to?  
(the full CIJ FoE report, and more, in the full post)

What Walski wonders is how exactly is the Government going to monitor every single blog, Facebook and Tweeter account? As we have seen in the print world, certain media bodies owned by components of the ruling BN coalition – either directly or by proxy – are allowed to spew all kinds of inflammatory rhetoric, getting away without even a slap on the wrist.

Will we see a situation where blogs, tweeterers, Facebook pages, and what not, friendly to BN get away scot free with publishing online whatever nonsense they wish to, while those critical of the BN and the government get hunted down? Will one need a license to blog? Or worse, tweet?

This is a situation we’re already seeing in the highly regulated print media world. Is the same going to be the case with online media?

It is not certain when the guidelines will actually be tabled in Cabinet, nor has an implementation timeline been announced. Not much has been reported about it since its initial announcement in early February this year either. So, there’s really no point in further deliberating over something we don’t know the shape, form, or smell of, is there?

But back to the report that Walski mentioned earlier, released last week by the CIJ. While he hasn’t had the chance to read through it cover to cover yet, based on reports from previous years, Walski reckons that it will outline what types of expressions have been tolerated, and what varieties have been suppressed.

He’s taken the liberty of posting the report below, in its entirety, for your reading pleasure.

You can download a PDF copy of the report, either via the Scribd link above, or directly from the CIJ site. It’s the same report either way, so whichever method suits you better makes no difference.

With the next General Elections looming in the not very distant horizon, it is actually rather expected that BN would prefer for it to be heard online, and no one else. As mentioned during the podcast, BN blames the Internet (and the various media within) in part for their dismal performance in GE12.

Since then, though, more BN personalities have been using blogs, Twitter and Facebook to try and make themselves more accessible to the online demographic. Which is a good thing, Walski must add. What’s not so good is the desire to suppress the views of those who don’t view BN as having exclusive rights to govern.

As it is, Malaysia’s RSF Press Freedom Index ranking has been on the steady decline in the past 5 years. While it could be argued that the number of countries looked at year on year generally increases, our ranking relative to the total number of countries considered has dropped in tandem with the number ranking. Our ranking in RSF’s 2010 report placed us at position 141 (out of 178 countries), putting us at about the 79-percentile level.

Malaysia's RSF Index Trend 2006-2010, image hosting by Photobucket

Which translates to the fact that Malaysia’s press is freer compared to only 37 other countries. In contrast, Indonesia has been hovering between positions 100 and 111 within the same period. Even Singapore’s press was rated more free in the 2010 report (ranked at 136), something pretty much unheard of in Walski’s recent memory.

While some may say that the RSF report paints a biased picture, their methods of tabulation are clearly defined, if one bothers to read their reports in toto. One measure of a progressive and developed nation is how free its press is. Some may point to Singapore as an example of a developed nation with a muzzled press, but in the bigger scheme of things, our neighbor to the South  is arguably an anomaly. More importantly though, is what Singapore has done over the years to advance itself, through meticulous planning and proper execution.

In an environment where public sector financial leakages have almost become a culture, a free press goes a long way towards correcting this economically debilitating wrong. But instead, the trend seems to be towards cultivating a compliant press.

Adding to that, perhaps with the online guidelines media guidelines, cultivating a compliant citizenry as well. And you wonder why Malaysians continue to seek greener pastures elsewhere?

It is very easy to label organizations like CIJ as “tools of the Opposition”, as some have. Such epithets have been hurled at many other organizations that seek to right the many wrongs that have become entrenched as the status quo. Name-calling and labeling may provide some sort of egoistic satisfaction amongst sycophants, but it does nothing towards solving real problems.

And if real problems continue to be swept under the carpet, we can kiss any aspirations of greatness within our own lifetime goodbye.

A free press, both mainstream and alternative, helps to ensure that said carpet doesn’t get bulgy and misshapen, and eventually ruin the carpet if sufficient crap gets shoved under it.

Curtailing freedom of expression may facilitate short term control. But when that control is premised upon a system that refuses to realize it is in need of repair, further suppression of freedoms may just lead that system to total self-destruction.

Introspection is not exactly a strong trait of sycophants, from Walski’s observation, and if only the voices of sycophants are allowed to be heard, who’s gonna tell you about that badly misshapen carpet, about to burst at the seams?