First published by The Malay Mail Online on 11 March 2016.

As a columnist in the Malaysian press for eight years with articles published in seven newspapers (at the moment Malay Mail, Borneo Post and Oriental Daily News), I have felt the pressures on editors to modify or outright censor things. Alas, sometimes the authors only find out in the newspapers certain key words or punctuation marks have been changed.

In countries with a free press and an educated citizenry, editors and newspaper owners know their reputations — and consequently their profitability from advertisers and buyers — will suffer if they print false news or offer inferior commentary and analysis.

In democracies with well-established party political competition, newspapers may be known to support one side or another, but that does not mean they can publish lies. This is because most readers generally want the truth.

There is pressure to adhere to certain standards and ethics within the journalistic profession, and there may be laws against inciting violence, defaming people or using information gained from illegal wire-tapping or email hacking.

Such laws appear in democratic countries because the right to freedom of expression is balanced by individual rights to freedom and privacy. Where exactly the line is drawn — and the legal language used to define it — differs from country to country, so international indices are useful since they apply one set of criteria to all countries.

In the most specific index for press freedom — Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index — Malaysia has languished from 110th in the world in 2002, 122nd in 2011-2012, and 147th last year. In broader indices on democracy in which media freedom forms a component, Malaysia similarly does not fare too well.

For those of us who consume a variety of sources to keep informed, the reasons are obvious: The suspension of newspapers and the blocking of websites. I donned black and blue to support The Edge Weekly and Financial Daily when they were suspended in July, and I am equally concerned by the latest blocking of The Malaysian Insider, which was banned by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) two weeks ago on the grounds that it violated the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, which the Bar Council has described as “oppressive” and “unsustainable in law.”

No specific reason was given for the action, but it is widely suspected one particular report on a Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) investigation was the main cause. However, it seems there are still Internet providers that have not complied with the blocking request (and as many have discovered, there are workarounds using proxies and mirror sites).

Naturally, there has been much domestic and international criticism of the move, including from the US State Department and newspapers that do not often write about Malaysia.

Alongside these developments, we have seen court cases that have resulted in some newspapers having to publish corrections and apologies or pay fines. These incidents suggest our judges are still actively interpreting laws and setting precedents that will define the role of journalists.

Two recent examples are when the Federal Court ruled a journalist is not obliged to disclose the identity of his sources, while the Court of Appeal held a public officeholder cannot initiate libel action for articles critical of their performance in that capacity.

Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman as home minister in the 1960s famously defended the role of a free press to prevent abuse of law (even during a period of Communist insurgency), while Tunku Abdul Rahman’s weekly column long after he was prime minister was routinely critical of the government of the day.

Ops Lalang in 1987 of course interrupted that, and many now find it ironic of late the prime mover behind that clampdown is now bemoaning the lack of freedom.

Those who support the latest restrictions on media freedom because it aligns with their political agenda are delighted at the opportunity to scream accusations of hypocrisy and desperation. But activists who oppose this latest authoritarianism are divided between those who adopt the mantra “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and those who do not.

The only true way for there to be reconciliation is to ensure such abuses can never happen again: where all Malaysians understand that one of the founding principles of our country is the crucial role of freedom of expression, where a minister cannot simply on a whim have an unfriendly website blocked, and where youth leaders and former prime ministers are freely able to criticise holders of public office, and even call for their resignation, whatever their motivations.

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