The Annexe Gallery at Central Market, along with the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), hosted a forum on 10 May 2009 discussing the contemporary Malaysian media climate and its potential for greater openness. Entitled “Media Under Najib: Hope or Disappointment?” the forum chronicled emerging trends across both traditional and new media in the weeks since Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak’s ascension to power.
“All this talk about reform is just that: cheap talk,” said panelist Zaharom Nain, a lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia and author of more than 80 publications dealing with the political economy of the media. His sentiments were echoed, over the course of the forum, by the other panellists, including the outspoken 1BLACKMalaysia progenitor Wong Chin Huat, and former Centre for Public Policy Studies Director Tricia Yeoh, now with the Selangor Menteri Besar’s office.
“Look what Barisan Nasional has given us,” continued Zaharom. “Promises, promises, promises; half-baked assurances and contradictions. As Chin Huat and others would testify, it has not been promising so far. The actors may have changed, but the overall rotten structures of an anti-democratic regime still remain.”
Zaharom’s allusion to his fellow speaker resonated greatly with a crowd largely sympathetic with Wong’s recent tribulations. Wong was arrested on 5 May following a police report that was later revealed to have been lodged by Jais Abdul Karim from Permuafakatan Warisan Islam (Pewaris) on allegations of ‘sedition’. Earlier on the same day, Wong had urged Malaysians to wear black on 7 May to protest what he described as “the ongoing Perak coup” by the Barisan Nasional government. He was eventually released 60 hours before his scheduled appointment to speak at CIJ's forum.
For Wong, his recent detention appeared merely the last straw in a legacy of oppression and constraint. He pulled no punches, asserting that without dissent and dialogue, legitimate elections could never be possible. “If there’s any Special Branch here, take this in,” he challenged. “Without elections, the government would be equivalent to the Mafia. They control territory, they extract money, they do not allow anyone living in their territory to refuse to pay money. The only thing distinguishing one from the other is that, with the government, the people have the right to control who controls them.”
When pressed about the legitimacy of the actions that put him behind bars, Wong exhibited uncompromising resolve. “How do you define ‘disaffection'?” he asked, referring to the statutory terminology of the Sedition Act. “The definition is so vague, you can put anyone behind bars! I have to thank the police for making the point so clear. I didn’t ask anyone to do anything! I didn't ask anyone to shout any slogan. I didn't even ask anyone to go to Ipoh...I merely asked people to wear black to show their unhappiness.”
For Yeoh, the government’s purported willingness to change simply didn’t line up with the facts. “You have [Information Minister] Rais Yatim saying ‘a diplomatic approach is needed in dealing with private media corps and bloggers,’ while in the same breath saying ‘we have to take legal action against hardcore perpetrators,’ whatever that means. I’m not sure that this reflects the attitude of an administration committed to reform,” she said, to laughter and wide applause.
The discussion centered on the notion of legal and institutional change as a means to media reform, calling for the repeal of laws like the Internal Security Act, the Official Secrets Act, the Sedition Act, and the Printing Presses and Publications Act in order to pave the way for change. It also emphasised the importance of a Parliamentary Select Committee on Media Freedom to objectively evaluate the contemporary media climate in an open consultative process that will include participation from all stakeholders. But the recommendations weren’t exclusively top-down in nature.
“We need to start looking at options like community newspapers, community radio,” said Yeoh. “Radio is very powerful at the kampung level. And journalists have a very powerful role to play—try not to self-censor too much, to push the line as far as you can. Use the words of reform that are being supposedly espoused by Najib and his gang to challenge your editors.” Yeoh acknowledged, however, that many of these steps were difficult or impossible without corresponding legislative action.
The panellists appeared surprisingly optimistic, however, in spite of these obstacles. For forum moderator Vanitha Nadaraj, this optimism was born out of recognition of common goals.
“We all have one dream: To make Malaysia a better place,” she concluded.