Monday, April 28, 2008

Setting the stage for WPFD

The 12th General Elections have presented some interesting opportunities and a platform to reiterate some of the issues related to freedom of expression that have been highlighted in the past.

The most notable was the extent to which the newspapers echoed the Barisan Nasional propoganda before and during the elections campaign, and possibly in ways that did more damage to the party. Readers have complained about the overly biased articles and reports, and a media monitoring initiative revealed the numbers to describe the bias.

The case of Makkal Osai, whose application for 2008 was rejected then given after an appeal raises questions about the minister's absolute discretion under the PPPA. Makkal Osai is happy, but for how long and for that matter, the other newspapers as well, especially Oriental Daily News which has yet to get its permit. See Chin Huat's article in theSun today on the PPPA.

Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar talked about relaxing the licensing provision under the PPPA, a recommendation made many times before from the media community and civil society groups. Examples, see CIJ, KAMI , WAMI, Charter 2000 and SUHAKAM.

How will the change in the political landscape with 82 Parliament seats and 5 states in the hands of the Pakatan Rakyat affect the media freedom agenda?

Will we have a Freedom of Information law in this term? Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has reiterated his commitment towards openness and accountability, but nothing much can happen as long as we have secrecy laws that protect abuses and wrongdoing. The opposition is proposing an FOI bill in Parliament, drafted by civil society, while the Selangor state government is pledging to introduce a state legislation within the year. How will BN respond?

One of the topics hardly mentioned in Malaysia is the need for community media, mainly in the form of community radio. Even the most developed nations have community media that add to the diverse and plural media environment, but importantly, to ensure that marginalised and dissenting views can reach the wider public through their own media. The internet is being exploited to get these through, as in the case of the that provides news roundups on issues of relevance to indigenous peoples. Examples of issues are the recent International Fact Finding Mission (IFFM) for Indigenous Peoples Land Rights that got very little coverage, and the Ipoh Echo, available in print for the Ipoh folks and online.

These are some of the issues that set the stage for this year's WPFD and we look forward to an engaging crowd at the forums as well as the exhibition.

"Freedom of Expression, Access to Information and Empowerment of People"

Some background to the theme, taken from the UNESCO's website for World Press Freedom Day.

Press Freedom contributes to Empowerment

In order for citizens to engage in public debate and to hold their governments and others accountable, key elements of living in a participatory democracy, citizens must have access to free, pluralistic, independent and professional media. The idea that communication and dialogue between different members of society will occur naturally cannot be taken for granted, and the media provide a means of access to information and igniting dialogue.

The role of community media

Even though many media outlets have made provisions for audience participation and have therein become more accessible to the people they serve, nowhere is accessibility and specificity of purpose so well defined as with community media. Currently radio is the most widespread form of community media in the developing world because it is cheap to produce and to access, can cover large areas, and overcomes illiteracy.

Access to information
Information can change the way we see the world around us, our place in it, and how to adjust our lives in order to maximize the benefits available through our local resources. Fact driven decision-making can significantly alter our political, social and economic perspectives. The right to access information can be interpreted within the legal frameworks that support Freedom of Information as it applies to information held by public bodies, or in a wider sense to encompass both access and circulation of information held by other actors, where it becomes intrinsically linked to Freedom of Expression.

Excerpts from UNESCO.

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