Malaysia’s flailing politically-owned newspapers, unable to compete against the freewheeling online press, blogs and unrestrained chatter on social media, have now managed to extract from the government a promise to hobble the online media, instead of expanding the boundaries of press freedom.
At the same time, the government announced it would be introducing a new law to control the press through a Press Coumcil, which it claimed would practise self-regulation.
Details of the new law were not revealed.
The two announcements came as a severe contrast to the prime minister’s proud boast 10 days ago when he claimed credit for Malaysia’s seeming rise in a world press freedom index » What Najib Doesn’t Want You To Know About Press Freedom).
Last night, at the Malaysian Press Institute awards ceremony, the prime minister said: “The government cannot be viewed as practising double standards in its rules towards the printed and digital media.”
That plainly means he is giving in to the demands of Utusan Malaysia and NSTP groups and The Star who have at various times bleated about how unfair it was that newspapers were regulated by press laws while Internet outfits operate under a strict promise of no censorship.
Failing to end press controls, the newspaper companies sought instead to get the government to repress the Internet.
Najib’s promise to control the Internet came in a vaguely-worded paragraph in which he said that the government “will carry out a comprehensive study for the need for an act such as existing ones to take into account of the development in information communication technology”, according to Malaysiakini.
It is the second vague concession to newspapers in six months. In September, the prime minister announced he would withdraw the current requirement for annual newspaper licences, and revert instead to the pre-1988 one-off licences renewable every year.
This grudging concession, after 24 years, came after newspaper editors had caved in to government demands for press to regulate itself and agreed to set up a press council. The prime minister made another promise last night that there would be no government interference in the press council. However the major newspapers are owned by the same political parties that form the current government.
Najib said: “The council can assist in upholding media freedom that goes in tandem with the current realities of the country.”
In other words, a press council that knows how to toe the government line — something at which the press has had plenty of practice.