KUALA LUMPUR: Democratic space in Malaysia remains constricted despite the government’s attempt to claim reformist credentials from recent legislative changes.
This is one of points made by the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) in its latest annual report on freedom of expression, presented last night at the Kuala Lumpur Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall by the group’s media monitoring officer, Ding Jo-Ann.
Restricting itself to an analysis of news reports in four major newspapers—Utusan Malaysia, the New Straits Times, the Star and the Sun—the media watch group compared their coverage of last year’s Bersih 2.0 rally with their reporting on last month’s rally.
It noted a significant drop this year in the number of news items about Bersih and the rally, and said this was “possibly” the result of “instructions from the top”.
Utusan carried 297 reports last year but a paltry 16 this year a day before the rally. The Sun had 29 reports last year but only 13 this year. The New Straits Times had 96 reports in 2011 compared to 11 in 2012. The Star fared no better, with 99 reports in 2011 and 12 report this year.
CIJ also studied the slant of reporting on the Bersih rallies.
The three English language newspapers increased their percentage of what CIJ considered as “neutral” reports, but Utusan’s reports on this year’s rally were virtually all negative against Bersih and its supporters.
CIJ also compared media reports on assaults against journalists during this year’s rally. For this, it included reports in online newspaper Malaysiakini, noting that it had more than any of the print newspapers.
Utusan was the most vigorous of the newspapers in the study in its reporting of attacks against policemen.
Ding noted that Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, in an announcement on Malaysia Day last year, promised amendments to unpopular laws and tabling of new laws to reflect his professed espousal of democratic reforms.
Najib announced that he was doing away with the ISA, Emergency Ordinances, amending Publishing Presses and Printing Act, and the Universities and University Colleges Act as well as the tabling of the Peaceful Assembly Act (PAA) and the Security Offences Act.
“But there has been no real change on the ground,” Ding said, arguing that the new Peaceful Assembly Act in fact gives police the power to decide what is “peaceful” and what is not.
CIJ welcomed the introduction of freedom of information legislation in Penang and Selangor, but raised a concern the Shah Alam administration’s interference in the editorial management of Selangor Times.
“The editorial team is relatively independent but Selangor Menteri Besar Khalid Ibrahim’s political and press secretaries are advisers to the newspapers and they vet the content before it goes to print,” said Ding.