The prime minister’s promise to do away with annual press licences is not the big deal that it’s being made out to be. It’s not a step forward — in fact it’s a step backwards, to the mid-1980s.
At that time press licences, once issued, could be renewed annually without making a fresh application every year.
Then came Operation Lallang, when the Mahathir Mohamad government was fighting for its life (and plenty of money) in an Umno civil war. The Star, Watan and Sin Chew were shut down. Changes were made to the press laws.
No more renewals, back to making new applications every year. The minister has the final say whether to approve. The minister has the final say about any conditions to be imposed. The minister decides. If you don’t like it you can lump it, because the minister’s decision cannot be challenged. No, you can’t go to the courts. That’s the law. The law says judges cannot decide. Ironic? That’s the Mahathir Mohamad style.
What else did the Mahathir government do? Introduce new and broader definitions of what is news — any information, almost. Redefine what is a “newspaper” — even something written down on a sheet of toilet paper if sold on the street could be considered a newspaper. Weird? That’s the Mahathir Mohamad style.
And what is Najib Tun Razak’s style? Make a loud hullaballoo about a teensy-weensy concession, doing away with annual licences and allowing renewals. That’s not reform, that’s just an administrative change to make life a little easier for paper-pushers in the bureaucracy and newspaper managements.
If nothing else is change and everything else from Mahathir’s government remains, then Najib’s big announcement about moving forward with the times (and remember, the Times is losing circulation by the day) is just a whitewash.
Real reform can only come when press laws are removed and political parties are banned from owning and controlling newspapers and radio and TV stations.
That takes real political courage. Does the Najib government have the balls to do so?
(Don’t hold your breath waiting.)