Badawi Dashes Hopes for Press Freedom
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Badawi Dashes Hopes for Press Freedom


By Anil Netto/PENANG, Malaysia Tuesday, August 3, 2004


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August 03, 2004—Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has dashed hopes of easing the country’s media restrictions despite calls made by editors of Malaysia’s tightly-controlled press to repeal draconian laws affecting publications.

Abdullah Ahmad Badawi

A case in point is malaysiakini.com which applied for permission to publish a weekly newspaper in September 2002 but to date has not received an answer to its application.

Steven Gan, editor-in-chief of the hugely popular Internet news portal has become pessimistic about his chances.

“I don’t think we are expecting any answer soon,” he said. “I think the government hasn’t rejected it outright but I guess they won’t be approving it any time soon either.”

In Malaysia, journalists are kept in line through a combination of management pressure and threats of prosecution under the tough Internal Security Act—which allows for a three-year detention without trial of anyone deemed to be a “security threat” to the country. For obvious reasons, few mainstream journalists ever step out of line.

But malaysiakini.com, which boasts of 50,000 visitors daily, has been an exception—taking advantage of the openness that exists only in cyberspace.

In January 2003, however, the Internet newspaper had its offices raided, computers confiscated, and staff interrogated by police acting on a complaint from the youth wing of the ruling United Malays National Organisation, which was angered by a letter published in malaysiakini.com complaining about the official pro-Malay racial preferences in the country.

Hopes of reforms were raised last November when Badawi took over as prime minister from Mahathir Mohamad, but those hopes are fast fading.

Hopes of reforms were raised last November when Badawi took over as prime minister from Mahathir Mohamad, who had earlier been named among the “Top Ten Enemies of the Press” for three straight years by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

But those hopes are fast fading. Badawi, who is also internal security minister responsible for approving new publication permits, has shown little indication of easing up on stifling press restrictions.

In June, the new premier hinted in Parliament that the government would not approve the application of malaysiakini.com on grounds of “national security and public order”.

Meanwhile, opposition Islamic party, Parti SeIslam Malaysia, which publishes a fortnightly tabloid, is still waiting for a response to its own application to publish a daily newspaper.

An associate editor of a pro-establishment daily said recently that through his interaction with high-ranking officials he came to the understanding that the government would be freezing the issuing of new licenses for newspapers for at least a decade.

This is the work of consolidation that Pak Lah [as Badawi is known] wants,” Rehman Rashid of the New Straits Times told reporters on the sidelines of a national consultation on human rights on July 24.

“Under Mahathir, it was about quantity like the number of tall buildings. Under Pak Lah, it is about quality,” he said.

Deputy Internal Security Minister Chia Kwang Chye, however, told malaysiakini.com there had been no change in policy and said the web portal’s application for a print edition was still being considered.

Chia said those interested in publishing newspapers could apply for permits but then reminded Malaysians that approval of their applications was at the minister’s discretion.



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