Malaysian media holds Mahathir to his promise of free speech

  • Only a year ago, publishing the column would have been almost unthinkable for a mainstream Malaysian newspaper.
  • In the 28 Nov 18 edition of the New Straits Times, former lawmaker Ruhanie Ahmad lashed out at Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s six-month-old cabinet, arguing that members’ lack of experience posed a “dilemma.”
  • It was Mahathir himself who paved the way for printing the piece. After his coalition’s historic victory in the general elections, Mahathir promised a freer press and swiftly removed a repressive anti-fake news law enacted by his predecessor, Najib Razak, just weeks before the poll.
  • Media organizations that were close to the former ruling coalition have taken Mahathir up on the offer. The Star, the largest English daily by circulation, has gone after the foreign minister in particular, blasting him for using abbreviations in Twitter posts and official speeches.
  • Ordinary people and businesses have noticed that the media is no longer muzzled, and are adjusting their own habits accordingly.
  • “People are following closely on politics now,” said Norman Goh, an editor with independent – and traditionally more outspoken – news website Malaysiakini.
  • The subscription-based outlet was already one of the most popular sources of reporting on the May election, attracting about 17 million readers at one point.
  • But it has felt a sea change since the vote. Advertisers who once steered clear of Malaysiakini for fear of offending the establishment have returned, the group said.
  • The election not only changed the leadership – it changed the climate of fear. To convince the public it is serious about press freedom, the government is thinking about capping the stakes political parties can hold in media companies, at 10%.
  • Yet a nagging question remains. Has Mahathir, a man once labeled an “enemy” of the media by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, really become a reliable guardian of the press?
  • There are still some 35 laws that impinge on media freedom in Malaysia, according to Steven Gan, Malaysiakini’s editor-in-chief. The government, meanwhile, is talking about setting up a council for media independence.
  • While Gan – who prevailed in several lawsuits brought by Najib’s government over Malaysiakini’s critical journalism – wants to see the laws amended, he also wants reforms to ensure the independence of government institutions like the anti-graft agency and election commission.

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