The challenges of press freedom under Malaysia’s new government

Photo: Mbl2020 / CC BY-SA

There are already alarming signs of deteriorating media freedoms under Malaysia’s new government. In the country’s contentious political landscape, parties and leaders show little concern for freedom of the press.

By Umair Jamal

Recent months have seen a growing number of arrests and violent attacks on the media in Malaysia, pointing towards a rapid decline in press freedom in the country. 

Under the new government of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who came into power in March, journalists face increasingly serious safety risks.

During the last few weeks, the government initiated criminal investigations against Al Jazeera journalists, a book publisher and an activist who criticized Muhyiddin for failing to deal with COVID-19 effectively.

The erosion of media freedom under the current government is driven by a politically weak administration that is sensitive to public criticism and seeks a favorable domestic and international image.

The shrinking space for dissenting views and independent media in Malaysia is likely to deteriorate further in the coming months.

With press freedom declining globally, it is unlikely that the international community will come to the aid of Malaysia’s media. 

Press freedom: A downward spiral

The recent police interrogations of Al Jazeera journalists in Malaysia highlights the growing dangers of reporting in the country. Last month, police questioned five Australian journalists from Al Jazeera over a documentary they made about the arrests of undocumented migrants in the country.

Police called the documentary’s reporting misleading and said it would be investigated under the colonial-era Sedition Act for inciting unrest and racial and religious tensions. According to the Bangkok Post, the country’s immigration department also issued a search notice for an immigrant who was interviewed in the documentary.

Malaysia’s stranglehold on the press goes beyond Al Jazeera. In another case, Steven Gan, the head of leading Malaysian news site Malaysiakini, was charged with contempt of court over comments made by readers on the website which the government considered critical of the country’s judiciary. Malaysia’s attorney general criticized the readers’ comments as a threat to “public confidence in the judiciary” and said they “clearly meant that the judiciary committed wrongdoings, is involved in corruption, does not uphold justice and is compromised its integrity.”

Malaysiakini has been publishing news and commentaries for two decades and this is the first time that the news outlet is being investigated for contempt of court. Gan’s real crime appears to be his news portal’s scathing criticism of the political faction that recently came to power in Malaysia. Gan recently told The New York Times that he was preparing to go to jail and he did not expect an impartial outcome in his case. The court has not announced the date of the verdict in the case but it is likely come soon.

These incidents have been compounded by the nonexistent labor rights in the country. In Malaysia, journalists are particularly vulnerable: thousands of media workers in Malaysia have been fighting against mass layoffs and poor working conditions. Last year, hundreds of former employees of the Utusan Malaysia, a Malay-language newspaper, protested demanding they be paid months of outstanding salaries. In July 2019, the newspaper shut down abruptly, leaving more than 1,000 workers unemployed.

What explains the government’s heavy-handed approach?

These incidents symbolize a huge setback for media freedom in Malaysia under the new government.

Malaysia improved considerably in the 2020 and 2019 editions of the World Press Freedom Index. According to Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) latest annual report, Malaysia made one of the biggest improvements globally in 2020 in terms of ending self-censorship. “The big rises by Malaysia (up 22 at 101st) and Maldives (up 19 at 79th) confirm the dramatic effect that a change of government through the polls can have in improving the environment for journalists and combating self-censorship,” the organization said. 

Malaysia’s new government has been in power for just over four months and there has already been a decline in civil liberties compared to the previous administration. The Muhyiddin government has resorted to increasingly authoritarian methods to silence dissent and criticism.

Malaysia’s local media have been critical of Muhyiddin for forging alliances with politicians whose background remains marred by corruption allegations and poor governance. The Muhyiddin government apparently views local and international media’s critical coverage as a threat to its rule.

This means that the current government likely won’t follow through on promises to repeal several laws that present a threat to press freedom any time soon. Instead, the state may very well use these laws to tighten its grip on the mainstream media. “Under these laws, which need a complete overhaul, the authorities have strict control over publication licenses and journalists can be sentenced to 20 years in prison on sedition charges. They pose a constant threat to media personnel, who still cannot express themselves with complete freedom, despite all the progress,” said RSF.

Can the situation improve in the coming weeks and months?

Malaysia’s many domestic challenges mean that it will take significant political will to improve its media landscape. The recent crackdown on prominent journalists and media outlets is meant to send a clear message to others in the field: fall in line or face the consequences.

The Muhyiddin government faces increasing political pressures at home. The current government is not likely to allow free space for media to work independently as it could potentially add to the problems the administration faces.

With the country’s politics becoming highly charged and divisive, the issue of media freedom is not going to become a primary concern for political parties in the foreseeable future.

On the global level, the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated an already-worrying decline in media freedom. These circumstances do not bode well for Malaysia’s media landscape as it faces institutional pressures. Only a government that is politically stable and committed to improving media freedom for the public interest can bring some improvements for journalists working in the country.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15