Charter2000
Widening the boundaries of media freedom in Malaysia
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Charter2000:
A Malaysian citizens' media initiative

Malay translation

Chinese translation

Preamble

We, the citizens of Malaysia, have an inalienable right to freedom of information and access to differing views and opinions. Over the years we have been denied this basic right. The media have been muzzled and cowed from playing the role of responsible purveyors of credible information and differing opinions.

Concerned over the abject state of the Malaysian media especially their role in denying the realisation of our basic right, we, as Malaysian citizens, demand that our media institutions be reformed.

Background

media Today, tight and selective control over media licences has prevented independent groups and organisations from starting their own publications and broadcasting stations. This state of affairs has allowed only vested political and economic interests to consolidate and perpetuate their control over society through their compliant media.

Politically motivated media curbs deny the public their right to a full range of viewpoints. They deprive the public of the opportunity to make informed decisions and consequently society ends up the loser.

Under such stringent control, the media tend to reflect and promote the agenda of the political elite and the rich while the concerns of autonomous civil society, the poor and marginal groups are sidelined.

The curbs on critical media have periodically led to major government crackdowns. This happened in 1961, when Utusan Melayu was taken over; it happened again in 1987, when the authorities suspended the licences of The Star, Sin Chew Jit Poh and Watan. The most recent crackdown took place soon after the 1999 general election, when the Home Ministry slashed the frequency of Harakah, and banned Eksklusif, Detik and Wasilah.

media Besides these periodic clampdowns, those in power have consistently resorted to blatant media abuse. During election campaigns, the ruling coalition manipulates and monopolises the media by harping on political and economic instability, by stoking ethnic fears, by unfairly discrediting the opposition, and by distorting its views. At other times, the media have indulged in distortions, baseless speculation, untruths and character assassination.

Such manipulation of the media and practice of partisan reporting must stop. The media can have no credibility when they fail to uphold the highest standards of journalistic ethics and professionalism.

In a sad but telling reflection upon the state of our media, the international Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) named Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad as one of the Top Ten Enemies of the Press for the second straight year in 2000. Malaysia now lags behind Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia, which have made much progress in achieving greater media freedom with the help of strong civil society support.

If we are to build a genuinely democratic society, the media must not only be responsive to public needs, but must also be free to perform its functions. So long as the freedom of the media is shackled, the right of Malaysian citizens to free expression is severely violated.

Media Restrictions

Media freedom has been restricted in three ways: through restrictive laws, through ownership of media by political parties and connected business individuals, and through self-censorship exercised by editors and journalists themselves.

Various repressive laws, the best known of which is the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA), have been used to clamp down on the press. The PPPA requires all publishers to apply for a new publishing permit every year. This requirement discourages publishers from practising more independent journalism. Publishers, who have made heavy capital investments, have every reason to fear that their annual licence applications will not be approved unless they conform to the wishes of those in power.

The PPPA not only controls the publishers; it also requires printing firms to apply for fresh printing licences annually. Hence it makes many printers afraid to take on jobs from more critical publishers.

Other draconian laws such as the Internal Security Act, the Sedition Act, and the Official Secrets Act have had a chilling effect on media freedom in Malaysia. These laws deter journalists from carrying out independent, investigative journalism while making editors exercise extra caution and practise self-censorship.

Of late, powerful political and business interests have resorted to filing multimillion ringgit libel suits as a way of penalising and silencing journalists and others who write critically of those interests.

Frustrated by official attempts to restrict and control news, more and more Malaysians have turned to the Internet. They now use it for lively journalism and free public debate. We welcome the presence of Internet-based media but we must be vigilant against any attempt to impose politically motivated controls in cyberspace.

But as the majority of Malaysians do not yet have access to the Internet, the print media will continue to play a pervasive role in moulding public opinion.

Principles

Guided by the above concerns, this Charter upholds the following principles towards the realisation of media freedom in Malaysia:

1. The media must be plural, democratic and accessible

To allow media freedom to flourish, the government must repeal all repressive laws. The media must not be the monopoly of political parties and commercial interests allied to them. An adequate legal and economic framework must be established to facilitate and reinforce universal access to and ownership of alternative, participatory, democratic, independent media.

Political and civil rights especially those related to the guaranteeing of open discussion, debate, criticism and dissent are central to the process of generating informed and considered choices. These processes are crucial to the formation of values and priorities and can help in assessing and finding solutions to social, economic and political problems.

In recent years, the media have become increasingly corporatised in tandem with greater control by political and economic interests. With the drift towards markets and profits, the interests of sections of society who fall outside the elite’s sphere of influence have been increasingly neglected and stifled.

It is therefore crucial to allow for a multitude of independent media to provide for alternative channels for expressing the aspirations of an economically and socially diverse and plural society.

Publicly owned and funded media must be allowed to operate independently and professionally so that they can credibly represent the interests of a wider spectrum of ordinary citizens in contrast to corporate-owned and politically affiliated media, which ultimately only serve the agendas of their owners.

2. The media must be committed to upholding human rights, democracy, and the rule of law

The media have an important role to play in the system of checks and balances of a progressive democracy. They must vigilantly defend democracy by highlighting and criticising abuses of power, corruption and human rights violations. They must be firmly pro-justice and pro-active in seeking to defend and uphold human dignity.

3. The media must uphold ethical responsibility and professionalism

The media must act as a “public trust”, obligated and empowered to protect the interests of society. They must carry out ethical and investigative journalism and uphold the highest standards of professional integrity by providing truthful and accurate reporting. The media must never indulge in politically motivated rumour-mongering, ethnic and religious baiting, and invasions of privacy.

The system of training and socialisation of media personnel must be thoroughly reformed so that journalists can be imbued with courage, integrity, discernment and critical thinking when writing and presenting their stories. Universities and colleges that provide journalism courses and media training must have a free and conducive environment so that journalism students can appreciate the social and political significance of independent and conscientious journalism in society. This is another reason for repealing the Universities and University Colleges Act, which stifles the academic environment.

Assistance must be given to support training programmes for media workers and to allow independent media to emerge. Journalists must also be accorded full protection under just laws that comply with international humanitarian laws. They must also have safe and unrestricted access to sources of information.

4. The media must consciously promote justice, freedom and solidarity

The media must foster unity by encouraging inter-religious dialogue and a better understanding of cultural heritage and traditions. They must create acceptance and understanding among various ethnic groups and celebrate differences while being guided at all times by the principles of justice, freedom and solidarity.

No society can have genuine peace and stability without justice, including social justice. Justice must be an overriding principle when the media focus on various issues, and especially the socio-economic disparities and inequities that continue to mark our society.

5. The media must empower the disenfranchised, downtrodden and dispossessed:

The media must go beyond providing a voice for the voiceless. They must also empower the disenfranchised and marginalised sectors of society. This can be done by:

  • sensitising journalists to the lives, experiences, sufferings and aspirations of marginalised or underprivileged communities so that the media can vividly and accurately portray the needs and demands of these communities.

  • providing channels for marginalised and oppressed groups and individuals themselves to articulate their grievances, to highlight injustices, and to reflect on strategies of transformation as a means of self-empowerment.

  • fostering sufficient opportunities for local and marginal communities, trade unions and public interest groups to set up and own their media.
The democratisation of the media must involve the enlargement of public space for debate and discussion so that all citizens, regardless of socio-economic backgrounds, will be better informed and empowered to participate in inquiry, decision-making, political action and policy formulation.

Our Demands

To realise the above, we, as Malaysian citizens, call for the following changes in the media environment in our country:

  • the enactment of a Freedom of Information Act, the provisions of which must be based on the reflections and recommendations of the widest possible spectrum of concerned groups and individuals as possible.

  • the repeal of the Printing Presses and Publications Act, the Internal Security Act, the Official Secrets Act, the Sedition Act, the University and University Colleges Act, and repressive clauses in all other legislation. In particular, the government must cease to require publishers and printing firms to obtain licences to publish. It must also enact legislation to prevent the award of excessive libel damages as a way of silencing critical journalism.

  • the establishment of a truly independent self-regulated media council similar to those found in countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. The council members should comprise media personnel, government and opposition representatives, human rights workers, lawyers and representatives of the public. The media council will act on all complaints and disputes involving the media, protect the media from interference from those with vested interests, and empower and provide access to marginalised groups.

  • the cessation of abuse and manipulation of publicly owned media (such as Radio Television Malaysia) by the ruling coalition. Parliament must enact legislation to vest the publicly owned media with a high degree of independence in terms of funding, appointments, agenda and priorities, and news content. We demand accountable, independent publicly owned media with institutionalised safeguards.

  • the reform of public and private media to ensure greater professionalism and high ethical standards while promoting justice, freedom and solidarity. Such reforms must be the result of internal media initiatives and external pressure from society. Similarly, we demand a high standard of professionalism and accuracy from media owned by political parties be they from the ruling coalition or the opposition.
An Agenda for Change

We firmly believe that all sectors of society - government, the public, and the existing media community - will benefit from a reformed media. We therefore call for the broadest support for this initiative and participation from all levels of society.

Charter2000, a citizens’ media initiative, will be the embodiment of this effort to reform and broaden media space. It will raise public awareness about the need for greater media freedom and be the basis upon which the public will be mobilised to lobby for reforms.

Based on the principles contained in this charter, specific and co-ordinated action will be necessary to build solidarity among groups and individuals concerned about media freedom and to realise tangible goals in the short- and medium-term.

These actions will include:

  • the endorsement of this charter by diverse groups and prominent individuals

  • the creation of a network of these groups and individuals.

  • the holding of a series of meetings and workshops for this network aimed at pursuing the demands of this charter leading to the establishment of a people’s tribunal to probe and document complaints of media abuse and to publicise the findings.

  • consultation with the network to explore various methods of realising the demands in this charter. These methods may include:
    • organising various types of boycotts such as:
      • an NGO boycott of media that propagate lies and distortions
      • a public boycott of those media
      • a public boycott of the products advertised in those media
    • the establishment of a co-ordinated media watch to expose lies and distortions in the media
    • the holding of demonstrations and the filing of police reports against media organisations that persist in publishing or broadcasting lies and distortions.
Charter2000 is the expression of the Malaysian people’s desire for free and responsible media in Malaysia. Through Charter2000, we demand reforms to the media environment so that ordinary people can truly exercise their rights to freedom of information and freedom of expression.