Malaysia rose up the international press index after a government change, loosening media expressions nationwide. Despite that, the future may not grant Malaysians total media liberation.
Research has shown that higher participation in social networking sites correlates with susceptibility to peer influence and consumer choice, evidently proving how easy people’s mind sway.
Likewise applies for people and media sources. There is no end to the amount of fake news out there, but a person reacts to it based on their principles and values. Thus, it contains power to entirely shape the perspective of a person.
Humans are easily susceptible to authoritative and media influence. Hence why media practice and control are often governed.
Similar media governance has been witnessed in Malaysia in the past. But since the change in political power last year, one has to wonder what is the extent of Malaysia’s press freedom.
Malaysia’s press freedom ranked 2nd in SEA
Malaysia climbed up 22 spots in the 2019 Press Freedom Index, putting Malaysia in the 123rd spot out of 180 ranked worldwide.
The ranking system is based off organisation Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based organisation that quantify and qualitatively analyse data on journalistic abuse or acts of violence.
The index is compiled by collecting questionnaires answered by a respective country’s sociologists, lawyers, and media professionals. It focuses on criteria such as pluralism, media independence, environment and self-censorship, legislative framework, transparency, and infrastructure, and abuses.
The boost places Malaysia at second place among other South East Asian countries; with Indonesia right behind at 124th, followed by Philippines (134th), Thailand (136th), Myanmar (138th), Cambodia (143rd), Singapore (151st), Brunei (152nd), Laos (171st), and finally Vietnam (176th).
Currently taking the top in SEA is Timor-Leste at 84th place.
Undoubtedly, the political change breathed some fresh air into media freedom, but that does not excuse anyone from the consequences of what’s being published or posted.
Press freedom at global stake
Internationally, it’s been reported that press freedom is on the decline, as power house countries have gradually apply authoritarian restriction against media outlets to suppress independent journalism.
Scenarios like the Russian government’s gradual dismantling of independent press, and China’s influence on media production, both national and internationally, has been claimed to endanger the democracy of global media freedom.
On top of that, the Freedom House’s annual press freedom report claimed the media controlling trend is most active in Europe, Eurasia, and the Middle East, citing dictatorship over media and the emergence of right-winged populism and detrimental contributions.
On the flip side, many experts claim that although Malaysia’s press freedom was greatly contributed by Pakatan Harapans surprising win, there are still restrictions and laws that halt overly aggressive expression of criticism, especially towards racial or religious discrimination antics.
Although Malaysia’s freedom of press has significantly increased, it does not equate to press immunity.
Not long ago, multiple individuals were arrested and jailed for insulting Islam and Prophet Muhammad. They were charged under laws against causing racial disharmony, incitement, and misusing communications networks.
Their insults stirred disharmony among netizen, but a 10-year jail sentence over social media postings were criticized as harsh by many parties. But it is clear that Malaysia doesn’t tolerate over the top criticism, and views it as a dangerous tool.
Controlling press and social media is a superpower
Social media powers the people’s mind; influencing their decisions, values, identities, and beliefs. And what greater power is there than gaining control over an unapologetic event or swaying perspectives at will.
Conformity may play a big part of why authorities crave the press control, because the age of social media has entirely changed the way people are influenced socially.
It is likely the norm of social behaviours today is now derived from the internet and press. What’s presented as fact may be interpreted as truth. Hence, the current generation is more likely to be more susceptible to trending news and values.
Take for example Brunei’s law on stoning homosexuals. Due to the controversy, Brunei has once again conformed, announcing they would not be carrying out death penalties for gay relations in Brunei.
The harsh punishment was greatly halted by international media outlets and famous celebrities for protesting against the bill and boycotting Brunei’s assets.
However, control over press and media is easier said than done, because it may backfire, resulting in a boomerang effect; an unintended consequence from a persuasion attempt.
A clear example is the Captain Marvel movie, whose main star Brie Larson received heavy backlash from haters to this very day, for spreading awareness of women empowerment.
For those trying to conquer press control, juggling to stay on top of social popularity has not been an easy task. With the help of internet, people are breaking traditional media communication, hence taking back control over how information is spread.
Sustain the freedom of press
Recently, the National Union of Journalist Malaysia (NUJ) had a discussion with the Home Ministry reiterating the status of Malaysia’s current freedom of press, by proposing to amend media suppressing acts.
Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has announced the repeal of the Anti-Fake News Act 2018 established by the previous ruling government, stating Malaysians can handle the spread of fake news themselves without law enforcement.
Additionally, the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 is still in effect, a problem PH promised to remove. This leaves publishers at risk of getting their work removed at the discretion of the Home Ministry if found offensive, with possible charges of fine or imprisonment.
But changes in policy may not be the only solution. Although it regulates media behaviour, Malaysians should also keep an open mind when consuming media online.
Questioning credibility is a healthy habit, but degrading opinions inconsistent with one’s own belief isn’t. Instead, viewing different perspectives may help people make better judgement.
Similarly, those with influential power on media have a duty to ethically publish information. As a Spider-man saying goes:
“With great power there must also come — great responsibility.”Spider-man