A Free Press is Essential to Democracy

Posted on May 17, 2012

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Written by Dennis Ignatius, a retired Malaysian diplomat.

LOCAL CENSORSHIP

Marina Mahathir, one of our nation’s most inspiring figures, recently wrote how her article in The Star was spiked for fear of incurring the wrath of the powers that be. As a columnist for the same newspaper myself, I understand Marina’s angst.

Recently, I submitted an article about democracy in Myanmar.  It ran on Monday, May 7. One line was, however, deleted. In referring to Prime Minister Najib Razak’s promise to support the transformation process in that country, I said, “We may not have much to teach them about democracy but we can help in other ways.”

It seemed such a small thing but even such references are now deemed too sensitive. I thought it was really ironic that here I was writing about democracy in Myanmar, long considered a dictatorship, while being censored in a country that is assumed to be a democracy.

The last article I wrote in response to bizarre allegations in the national press that American and Zionist groups were plotting regime change in Malaysia was spiked with no explanations given.

It seems newspaper editors in Malaysia, at least the ones who don’t behave as government servants, have to constantly play by ear, shutting down criticism when the government is nervous and allowing some measure of it at other times.

TOO SENSITIVE

Commentators, for their part, quickly learn that it is prudent to write about developments in faraway places than to touch on the issues that really matter at home. And so we wax eloquent on why Nicolas Sarkozy lost the elections or why Barack Obama supports gay marriage instead of the beaten and bloodied demonstrators on the streets of our capital. It’s the journalistic equivalent of Nero fiddling while Rome burns.

Having been brought up on the notion that some issues, particularly those relating to race and religion, are “sensitive” issues, we came to accept a measure of state censorship. There are signs, however, that things are changing. People are less willing to accept such censorship today, particularly as the so-called “sensitive” list has been expanded to include other national issues.

ONE-SIDED LOCAL MEDIA

Furthermore, it is quite obvious that the mainstream media has become far too one-sided for the liking of most Malaysians. Perhaps that may account for the gradual decline of newspaper sales in the country.

Our prime minister recentlyintroduced legislation amending the Printing Presses and Publications Act and other repressive laws. He promised that it would lead to greater freedom, including press freedom.

However, it appears that while Parliament may have changed the letter of the law, the spirit of control behind it has survived intact. In quiet and hidden ways, the press continues to be subjected to manipulation and harassment in an effort to drown out dissenting opinions and differing views.

CULTURE OF SELF-CENSORSHIP

A culture of self-censorship has also emerged where the press learns to anticipate the reaction of the powers that be and acts accordingly. When the press ceases to write “without fear or favour,” to use the title of the late Tan Sri Dr Tan Chee Khoon’s column in The Star, we have truly lost one of the essentials of our democracy.

History tells us that without a free press, truth dies and the lie prevails while mismanagement, corruption and the abuse of power fester in the dark with terrible consequences. As well, it creates an unhealthy environment where rumours and gossip quickly become fact.

BERSIH BECAME KOTOR

Just these past few weeks we have seen how one of the most significant events in our country’s history has been reframed and recast as a communist-inspired coup attempt, as nothing more than mass hooliganism, as something contrary to our religious values.

What about the other side of the story or the personal narratives and firsthand accounts of hundreds of ordinary citizens who were there that day? Is there no space in our national newspapers for their story?

Journalists have a responsibility to capture such events in all its dimensions to help the public understand what took place. If they do not, they will soon find themselves irrelevant to the national conversation on these issues.

History also teaches us that to sustain itself, repression and control, by its very nature, must keep on expanding to be effective. Already we are seeing signs of censorship creep and manipulation — BBC and al Jazeera newscasts edited and an Australian senator’s remarks blatantly distorted.

CONSTANT HARASSMENT

And then there’re the shocking remarks by our minister of Home Affairs that it is standard operating procedure for the police to smash cameras and harass journalists who cover such public gatherings!

How long will it be before all criticism of government becomes illegal and treasonous?

It is tempting, of course, to blame the editors and journalists for not standing up to censorship but that misses the point.

I have met a number of journalists and editors, including from The Star, and I know them to be honourable men and women who have dedicated their lives to their profession. You cannot be committed to journalism, as they are, and not yearn for the freedom to write, to explore issues, to investigate a lead no matter where it goes. My sense is that they deeply resent the censorship and the constant harassment.

They are forced to make choices that they shouldn’t have to make: To yield in some areas in order to keep at least a modicum of free expression alive in other areas and to compromise or close, to give up or somehow keep hope alive.

SYSTEM OF CONTROL AND MANIPULATION

The real focus of our indignation should instead be the system of control and manipulation that makes good men and women bow their knee to what their hearts deny, that forces them to choose between their principles and their livelihood, between what they know to be right and the wrong they are often compelled to accept.

It is no secret that our nation now faces many critical challenges; press freedom is one of them. I hope that the voices clamouring for this fundamental right will grow louder in the days ahead. The future of our democracy depends upon it.

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free… it expects what never was and never will be. The People cannot be safe without information. When the press is free… all is safe.” ~ Thomas Jefferson