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End KDN’s death-grip on the press says Soi Lek

Sat 2012-Feb-11 @ +08 09:12:43 am

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The MCA, which owns The Star, has stepped up pressure for press freedom by calling for the removal of the home minister’s power to grant, withhold, suspend or revoke newspaper publishing licences, according to the NST, which was the only paper to report this from Chua Soi Lek’s speech at the MCA media night on Thursday.

Chua and his predecessors have made similar comments before, asking the government to allow the controlled press to compete on even terms with the unregulated online media. Newspapers have all suffered drops in circulation sales, which will eventually affect their advertising revenue and profitability; though it’s only partly a result of the wide range of news and opinions available on the free-wheeling Internet news sites and blogs, removing the fear of suspension will make newspapers better able to compete.

Chua’s real point, though, is that publishing a national newspaper requires large investments in heavy machinery and manpower and that the minister’s power to suspend or revoke the KDN puts these investments at risk, creates uncertainty, and frightens off new investors.

What others said

I have told my officers to look for other ways than issuing annual licences. We should issue licences only once (upon application).
Syed Hamid Albar
home minister
April 2008

Press freedom is the trend of the future. The era of a fully controlled media is no longer practical.
Ahmad Shabery Cheek
information minister
May 2008

It is high time the government end media licensing by amending or abolishing the Act.
Khairy Jamaluddin
Umno Youth leader
June 2010

Why have the Kelantan and Selangor governments failed to obtain licences for their own radio stations? In Kelantan, even after 20 years…
Dzulkefly Ahmad
MP for Kuala Selangor
June 2010

Billion-ringgit blackmail

Media companies are worth billions on the share market. The MCA’s 42% stake in the Star can fetch RM1.2bn or more, and the paper throws up RM40-50mil a year in dividends to the MCA.

All that would be at risk every time The Star (or any other paper) is hauled up by the home ministry, having to reply to show-cause letters to defend its licence, merely because some section of Umno or their allies were upset.

The power to issue, suspend, or revoke licences, in the hands of an Umno minister, leaves non-Umno publishers and editors open to political blackmail.

It’s also a deterrent to new titles, and preserves a cosy near-monopoly for Barisan parties.

Suara Keadilan received its KDN in 2008, years after the party’s registration, then faced punitive ministry action in 2009 and 2010.

The only new English-language title, Selangor Times, got going only because it is published under the aegis of the Selangor government. Its content is limited to state and community activities. (The Selangor and Kelantan governments have also been denied broadcasting licences for their own radio and television stations which they need because they are refused airtime on the government’s RTM stations.)

Still waiting for licences

The Star has been rebuffed several times in its attempt to obtain a licence to start a Bahasa Malaysia newspaper. It started a Malay section but that has folded, leaving only a Malay version online.

Malaysia Kini wants to go into print to broaden its reach as well as tap into the big bucks of advertising to help them build for the future. They’ve been denied and the matter is still before the courts.

Hata Wahari, former president of the National Union of Journalists, is still waiting for a licence to start his own newspaper for which he submitted an application last year. Permit sought for new weekly newspaper

Ending the minister’s power to issue licences will allow anyone with the money or the interest to start their own paper, of any political flavour, and live or die on the open market.

After all, on the Internet anyone can start an news web site with very little money, without KDN approval or a licence.

Thus the MCA’s lobbying serves not just the cause of greater press freedom but also its own self-preservation, protecting its billion-ringgit stake in Star Publications, the listed company that publishes The Star, Sunday Star, Red Tomato and four magazines, and operates four commercial radio stations.

A modest investment in a struggling paper 24 years ago has paid off spectacularly. They would be foolish not to realise it could all be blown away at the stroke of a minister’s pen.

Najib’s tiny step forward

Opposition politicians, of course, have been most vocal about press freedom, again out of self-interest: without a free press they can’t be heard. It’s also in the self-interest of the others, Barisan Nasional people such as Chua’s predecessor Ong Ka Ting, and Umno’s Ahmad Shabery Cheek, Khairy Jamaluddin and Syed Hamid Albar. Ten years of ignoring the Internet brought a painful lesson in 2008. No wonder BN politicians have been more willing to speak up for press freedom since then.

Three years ago, Syed Hamid Albar as home minister had said yearly applications were a nuisance. Ahmad Shabery Cheek as information minister spoke out for press freedom.

Nothing came of it. Both ministers were replaced. New ministers called for tighter control of the Internet. Harsh actions by KDN continued, especially against non-Umno publications. The Utusan Malaysia gets away scot-free despite its racial baiting.

When Najib Razak announced in September that KDN permits would now be lifetime licences — good unless revoked — he was taking only a small step forward, after years of lobbying. Lifetime licences merely remove an administrative inconvenience.

The minister still has sole power to punish by suspending or revoking the licence, and the power to intimidate by issuing show-cause letters, harrassing editors by calling them in “for a chat” or meetings to get “guidance” on how to run a newspaper. It’s a KDN death grip around the throats of editors and journalists.

Politicians have no business trying to tell editors and journalists how to do their job. The last people to be trusted for “guidance” on good journalism are politicians, policemen and public servants, many of whom can’t be trusted even with their own jobs.

Getting rid of the minister’s power to intimidate, harrass and punish would be one good step towards restoring good journalism. While we don’t need politicians trying to be mock journalists neither do we need half-journalists who survive by being politicians. We’ll be better off when rid of both types of parasites.

Why did papers ignore Chua’s demand?

Although the New Straits Times reported Chua’s demand to cut the minister’s power, the paper avoided highlighting that point in its headline. Was it from from a lack of editorial courage (a commodity not in great supply in Jalan Riong), or out of wanting to avoid appearing to put Hishammuddin Hussein, the home minister, on the spot?

After all, should it come to pass, it would not be only the minister to feel the loss: Umno and all its papers would also be left without a lever with which to extort the MCA, the Star and other non-Umno publications, or to inhibit the competition’s journalism and circulation.

That’s not a small matter: the NST is in the doldrums (below 70,000 paid sales), outsold 3-to-1 by the Star. The minister’s discretionary power amounts to a billion-ringgit tool for blackmail.

Perhaps it was not surprising that The Star only reported Chua’s advice for Malaysians to be more discerning in what they read while Sin Chew reported his observation that Malaysians still turn to journalists (and not bloggers) for news.

Still, the NST was left looking like the odd one out — unless they had (mistakenly?) used the text of Chua’s old speech from the media night of 2011, where he had said the same thing last year.

Chua’s advice is just common sense anyway, whether about the titillating trash pumped out by Papagomo, Parpukari and gang or the sensational disclosures of Raja Petra KamarudinMalaysians should not whole-heartedly accept crap — whether from ministers or politicians, or their crappy supporters, or whether the crap is in the Star or the Not Straits Times or elsewhere online.

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