Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Malaysia Ranks 141/195 Alongside Cameroon and Liberia in Freedom of the Press 2008 Survey

Hat-tip to Kean Jin.

Nevermindlah, always better than Pakistan and Iraq, some say Singapore what!

[Source: Tables feature country rankings and numerical scores for the 2008 survey, Freedom House (in PDF format)]

This is the press release from Washington-based Freedom House:

Freedom House: Press Freedom Losses Outnumber Gains Two to One in 2007
April 29, 2008

Global press freedom underwent a clear decline in 2007, with journalists struggling to work in increasingly hostile environments in almost every region in the world, according to a new survey released today by Freedom House. The decline in press freedom—which occurred in authoritarian countries and established democracies alike—continues a six-year negative trend.

Freedom House will formally present findings from Freedom of the Press 2008: A Global Survey of Media Independence today at the Newseum in Washington. Freedom House Executive Director Jennifer Windsor will also unveil the Map of Press Freedom 2008, a central exhibit featured in the Newseum's Time Warner World News Gallery.

While the survey indicated that setbacks in press freedom outnumbered advances two to one globally, there was some improvement in the region with the least amount of press freedom: the Middle East and North Africa. The survey attributes the gains in the Middle East and North Africa to a growing number of journalists who were willing to challenge government restraints, a pushback trend seen in other regions as well.

"For every step forward in press freedom last year, there were two steps back," said Windsor. "When press freedom is in retreat, it is an ominous sign that restrictions on other freedoms may soon follow. However, journalists in many countries of the world are pushing the boundaries, crossing the red-lines, demonstrating commitment and courage against great odds and we are seeing a greater global flow of information than ever before."

Out of 195 countries and territories, 72 (37 percent) were rated Free, 59 (30 percent) Partly Free, and 64 (33 percent) were Not Free, a decline from 2006. However, the study found that declines in individual countries and territories were often larger than in years past.

Key regional findings include:

* Central and Eastern Europe/ Former Soviet Union: This region showed the largest region-wide setback, with Russia, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, and several Central European countries, among others, showing declines. Only 18 percent of the region’s citizens live in environments with Free media.
* Middle East and North Africa: More unrestricted access to new media such as satellite television and the internet boosted press freedom regionally. Egyptian journalists showed an increased willingness to cross press freedom 'red lines,' moving the country into the Partly Free category.
* Asia-Pacific: Restrictions on media coverage were imposed in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, and Vietnam’s government cracked down on dissident writers.
* Americas: Guyana's status shifted from Free to Partly Free, while Mexico's score deteriorated by a further three points because of increased violence against journalists and impunity surrounding attacks on media.
* Sub-Saharan Africa: The region accounted for three of the year's five status changes: Benin declined from Free to Partly Free, while the Central African Republic and Niger moved into the Not Free category. Political conflict and misuse of libel laws were key factors behind a number of country declines.
* Western Europe: The region continued to have the highest level of press freedom worldwide, despite declines in Portugal, Malta and Turkey, the only country in the region ranked Partly Free.

The survey, released annually in advance of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, assesses the degree of print, broadcast, and internet freedom in every country in the world. The 2008 ratings are based on an assessment of the legal, political and economic environments in which journalists worked in 2007.

"Improvements in a small number of countries were far overshadowed by a continued, relentless assault on independent news media," said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Freedom House senior researcher and managing editor of the survey. "We are particularly concerned that while abuses of press freedom continue unabated in restrictive environments such as China, threats are also apparent in countries with an established record of media freedom and in newer democracies in Central Europe and Africa."

The key trends that led to numerical movements in the study include:

* Unrest and Upheaval: Media played a key role in covering coups, states of emergency and contested elections in countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Georgia, and as a result, journalists became prime targets during government crackdowns.
* Violence and Impunity: Violence against journalists and, in many cases, corresponding impunity regarding past cases of abuse was a key factor in determining press freedom in countries as diverse as Mexico, Russia and the Philippines.
* Punitive laws: Media freedom remains seriously constrained by the presence and use of numerous laws that are used to punish critical journalists and outlets.The abuse of libel laws increased in a number of countries, most notably in Africa.
* New media:
Satellite television and internet-based news and networking sources are an emerging force for openness in restricted media environments as well as a key target for government control.

The world's worst-rated countries continue to include Burma, Cuba, Libya, North Korea, and Turkmenistan. In 2007, Eritrea joined the ranks of these exceedingly bad performers, while a crackdown in Burma worsened that country’s already repressive media environment, leaving its score second only to that of North Korea worldwide.

And this is the report on Malaysia:

Status: Not Free
Legal Environment: 24
Political Environment: 23
Economic Environment: 18
Total Score: 65

Malaysian media—traditionally constrained by significant legal restrictions and intimidation—were further restricted in 2007 primarily a result of an escalating crackdown on online media, which has emerged as a primary outlet for free discussion and for exposing cases of political corruption. Meanwhile, the ruling coalition, the Barisan National (BN), invoked traditionally tight restrictions on the mainstream media to prevent coverage of heightened opposition activity toward year’s end.

The constitution provides each citizen with “the right to freedom of speech and expression” but allows for limitations on this right. The 1984 Printing Presses and
Publications Act (PPPA)
requires all publishers and printing firms to obtain an annual operations permit and gives the prime minister the authority to revoke licenses at any time without judicial review. The PPPA has been used by authorities to shut down or otherwise circumscribe the distribution of media outlets for material deemed pro-opposition, against the national interest, or “sensitive.” The PPPA was invoked in March to threaten the opposition paper Harakah for “violating its permit conditions” after ran a front page story criticizing the prime minister, covering controversial toll hikes, and linking the deputy prime minister to a murder case. In September the Tamil daily Makkal Osai was suspended under the same legislation for publishing materials deemed “harmful to public safety.”

The 1988 Broadcasting Act allows the information minister to decide who can own a broadcast station and the type of television service suitable for the Malaysian public. The Official Secrets Act, Sedition Act, and harsh criminal defamation legislation are also used to impose restrictions on the press and other critics and are all punishable by several years in prison. Officials are reluctant to share controversial data and used this restrictive legislation against online media for the first time in 2007 in response to bloggers’ and web sites’ increasing coverage of corruption cases and other controversial matters. In January, defamation charges were first brought against bloggers, accused of plagiarism against the publisher and editor of the New Straits Times, which enjoys close ties to the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party. In April a BN official brought defamation charges against Malaysiakini, a critical web site, and Nathaniel Tan, another blogger and assistant to the head of the opposition People’s Justice Party, was arrested under the OSA in July. Tan was charged in connection with his commentary related to corruption in the country’s internal security system and was released after his four-day remand expired.

The threat of expensive defamation suits, sackings, media closures, media bans, and unannounced interrogation by the Ministry of Internal Security for any “mishandling” of information generally inhibit investigative reporting. Moreover, a history of political interference in media coverage of issues considered by the government to be against the national interest or “sensitive” has fostered a culture of self-censorship on the part of traditional media. While there has been somewhat greater criticism of official policy in the mainstream print press in recent years, both the print and broadcast media’s news coverage and editorials generally support the government line.

Online journalists have increasingly defied this tradition, however, and in 2007, played a particularly central role in exposing government corruption and covering anti-government protests toward year’s end. In addition to using defamation suits and other legalistic means to silence criticism, the government responded by issuing coverage directives to online media for the first time. A July statement by the government explicitly warned that bloggers who write about “sensitive issues” would be charged under the ISA, OSA, and Sedition Act. Newspapers were specifically warned against covering the “rumors” being reported online. In April, Prime Minister Abdullah rejected a proposal that would require bloggers to register with the government but, in June, convened a task force of BN officials to find legislation that could be used to control online content without contradicting the country’s Bill of Guarantee Against Internet Censorship.

Further, reporting bans issued in July 2006 in connection with heightened tensions related to matters of race and religion were repeated in July 2007 when the media was prohibited from reporting all negative reactions to the deputy prime minister’s assertion that Malaysia has always been an Islamic state. In November, the authorities ordered the mainstream media to refrain from reporting on anti-government rallies and relaying the organizers’ statements; according to Malaysia’s Center for Investigative Journalism, news coverage of the rallies neglected the anti-government stance while reporting on clashes between participants and the police were biased in favor of the police.

Foreign publications are subject to censorship, and the distribution of issues containing critical articles is frequently delayed The government directly censors books and films for profanity, nudity, and violence as well as certain political and religious material. The Malaysian Film Censorship Unit banned a film about former Malay Muslim members of the Communist Party of Malaysia in February for portraying the Communist struggle as noble. Television stations censor programming according to government guidelines; a talk show was banned for contradicting the values of Islam Hadari advocated by the prime minister in February as well.

A business deal between the Malaysian Chinese Association and media tycoon Tiong Hiew King in October 2006 solidified the monopolization of the Chinese press, with all top four Chinese dailies now concentrated in the hands of a firm political-business alliance. Regional press freedom watchdog groups expressed concern in February 2007 regarding a further consolidation of the Chinese media across countries following a proposed tripartite merger among two Malaysian and one Hong-Kong based media groups, all owned by Tiong. Such a merger would create the largest Chinese publication group outside China and Taiwan.

With 60 percent of the population accessing the internet, online media have helped minimize the government’s monopoly of information in the past few years and bolstered the average Malaysian’s access to alternative information sources. Moreover, online media proved a crucial organizing tool and means of publicizing the opposition-led and minority-rights demonstrations in November.

[Source: Draft reports for Freedom of the Press 2008 are available to give analytical narrative explanations for our country scores (in PDF format; jump to page 131].

Read all the reports, charts, methodology and analysis from Freedom House's website here.

Is there hope? Read my next post.

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