Wednesday, April 09, 2008

New Hope For Press Freedom With Election Upset

NEW HOPE FOR PRESS FREEDOM WITH ELECTION UPSET

The Malaysian government's unprecedented losses in national elections last month will hopefully provide the long-awaited drive for media reform, say Malaysia's Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA).


Although the ruling coalition was returned to power, its popular vote was slashed from its usual two-thirds majority to just over 51 percent. The opposition also got more representation in Parliament, capturing five out of 13 state seats.

Since then, the political balance of power has shifted in Malaysia, giving rise to increasing calls by many Malaysians for an era in which human rights are promoted and protected, says Amnesty International.

The setback was even more stunning considering media coverage was heavily biased in favour of the ruling coalition. A monitoring project of six major newspapers, conducted by CIJ and others, found that 65 percent of elections coverage was devoted to reports favouring the incumbent federal government and projections of its "imminent victory", while only 12 percent covered pro-opposition stories.

In the lead-up to the election, Malaysians started to take to the streets to express their dissent. Neither their grievances nor the protests that were suppressed, sometimes with violence, were fairly covered in the mainstream media, which "increased public dissatisfaction at the lack of democratic space," and led to the government's ignorance of voters' concerns, says SEAPA.

Already a change in attitude is apparent. Lim Guan Eng, a state chief minister, and 15 other elected representatives from the federal-level opposition parties have pledged to push for a freedom of information law, reports CIJ. Lim himself is a victim of Malaysia's restrictive free expression environment; he was jailed for two years in 1987 under the Internal Security Act during a massive clampdown on dissent and then for a year in 1998.

The 15 representatives also endorsed the demands of rights organisations, including CIJ, to review Malaysia's draconian media and information laws, including the Printing Presses and Publications Act, which places the burden of proof on defendants in defamation cases.

Parliament has also agreed to telecast live its Question Time starting from 30 April, after the new Parliament convenes.

Some of CIJ's other recommendations to the authorities include encouraging competition by allowing more media outlets to be set up, giving financial support for community media, and improving ethical standards.

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