The Malaysian government’s desire for “absolute control” over information led Reporters Without Borders to drop the nation 18 spots on its World Press Freedom Index released Tuesday – the biggest dip among all counties ranked in the watchdog group’s annual report.
Elsewhere in the region, the governments of Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand used the coronavirus pandemic to repress the media in 2020, the Paris-based group reported.
Just one year after it jumped 22 notches on the index, Malaysia fell to 119 in the ranking of 180 nations.
“Malaysia … embodies the desire for absolute control over information. Its astonishing 18-place fall, the biggest of any country in the index, is directly linked to the formation of a new coalition government in March 2020,” Reporters Without Borders said in an analysis of the report on its website.
“It led to the adoption of a so-called ‘anti-fake news’ decree enabling the authorities to impose their own version of the truth.”
The report noted that the unelected government of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin revived the Special Affairs Department (JASA) “which pumps out political propaganda and was awarded the vast sum of 85 million ringgits (U.S. 206 million) in funding in the 2021 budget.”
“The government can rely on a draconian legislative arsenal with which to suppress media freedom, an arsenal that includes the 1948 Sedition Act, the 1972 Official Secrets Act and the 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act. Under these laws, which deserve a complete overhaul, the authorities have a strict control over publication licenses and journalists can be sentenced to 20 years in prison on sedition charges,” the report said.
Muhyiddin’s office did not immediately respond to a BenarNews request for comment on the report.
Zaharom Nain, a media and communication studies professor at Malaysia’s Nottingham University, questioned reviving the JASA.
“This is really an overreaction and excessive use of undemocratic power. We don’t need JASA under these circumstances,” he told BenarNews.
“It is most likely going to be abused and misused as a propaganda arm of the PN and not a legitimate instrument of a democratically elected government to genuinely inform and educate the people,” he said, using an acronym for the ruling Perikatan Nasional coalition.
Zaharom said the government does more than merely charge people under the Sedition, Open Secrets and Communications and Multimedia acts.
“‘Suppression of freedom’ isn’t just about charging in court using any of these laws – which has happened and continues to happen. More than that, it is about the intimidation and fear brought about by threatening the use of these laws. Which then leads to much self-censorship and fear,” he said.
Fahmi Fadzil, the spokesman for the opposition People’s Justice Party (PKR), issued a statement in response to Malaysia’s 18-spot fall in the rankings.
“This is definitely not a positive achievement or something that out country should be proud of. Media that is restrained and fearing the government creates a negative situation, especially when those in power are abusing their powers, corrupt and do not carry out their responsibilities,” Fahmi said.
“Media that are afraid would surely nod in agreement all the oppression and corruption by those in power.”
Fahmi’s statement included four steps that should be taken to restore media freedom.
He called for the formation of an independent media council and to abolish the emergency ordinance on fake news. He also called the Communications and Media Act to be amended.
His fourth step called for Muhyiddin to inform the king to reconvene Parliament, which was suspended due to a national emergency declared by the monarch in January over the COVID-19 pandemic.
An MP with the opposition, Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, who was kicked out of Bersatu along with the party’s founder, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, in May 2020, noted that the drop occurred after Muhyiddin replaced Mahathir. Three others were dumped from the party as well.
“A democratic nation must ensure freedom for its media practitioners in carrying out their duties and deliver news,” he said in a statement. “When media practitioners can function well without any iron fist treatment from the government, then the public would be able to get information that is true, accurate and correct.
“So, what is the response of Perikatan Nasional government regarding this worsening performance?”
Pandemic hurts press freedom
Reporters Without Borders noted that Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand had adopted extreme laws or decrees in the spring of 2020 to criminalize criticism of government action.
Indonesia ranked 113 in the report, moving up six spots from the previous year; Thailand ranked 137, up three spots; the Philippines ranked 138, down two spots. Bangladesh ranked 152, down one spot.
In Indonesia, “the government took advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to reinforce its repressive weaponry against journalists, who are now banned from publishing not only ‘false information’ related to the coronavirus but also any ‘information hostile to the president or government’ even if it is unrelated to the pandemic,” the report said.
Thai authorities under Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha took a similar course of action, it said.
“The government used the coronavirus crisis to issue a decree making the dissemination of information that is ‘false or capable of causing fear in the public’ punishable by up to five years in prison and allowing the authorities to ‘correct’ any published information,” the report said.
In the Philippines, the report pointed to the president’s actions.
“The coronavirus crisis has highlighted the main elements of the authoritarian course taken by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who often threatens journalists that do not follow the official line with death, branding them ‘sons of bitches,’” it said.
Reporters Without Borders said at least two journalists were facing two-month prison terms for spreading “fake news” about the pandemic under the Bayanihan Act, enacted in March 2020.
“The legislation gives the government powers to prosecute any reporter or news organization publishing a report that displeases the Duterte government,” it said.
In South Asia, the report claimed that Bangladesh saw an “alarming increase in police and civilian violence against reporters” that resulted from the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, adding many journalists, bloggers and cartoonists were prosecuted for reporting on the impacts of COVID-19.
“To this end, the government now has a tailor-made judicial weapon for silencing troublesome journalists – the 2018 digital security law, under which ‘negative propaganda’ is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. As a result, self-censorship has reached unprecedented levels because editors are justifiably reluctant to risk imprisonment or their media outlet’s closure,” it said.