The three-month suspension of The Edge Financial Daily and The Edge Weekly newspapers by the Home Ministry is a chilling reminder of a government that silences any form of critical questioning. The obvious intention is to strike fear into our hearts, demonstrating they are the source of all control – with them lies the power to grant a printing permit, just as the power to revoke it.
This comes on the back of the Sarawak Report portal being barred in Malaysia, a blatant act of Internet censorship despite the government committing to open online access. Journalist groups have been especially angered at recent developments. Rightly so, given it is their profession – and everything they stand for – being challenged. Without the freedom to report independently on issues regardless of the powers that be, what credibility have they?
But it is not just the media fraternity that needs to pay careful attention to media freedom. How freely and openly the media is to write their stories have a much deeper impact on the nation as a whole in a host of other areas like the economy, democracy and ultimately, our very own pockets.
For instance, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index uses media freedom as an indicator of civil liberties that measures, amongst others, how free print media is, the level of openness and free discussion of public issues, and political restrictions to the Internet. A robust, independent media is a fundamental pillar in a “mature democratic society”, the third strategic challenge outlined by Vision 2020, a vision fast fading away.
In such an environment, a dynamic and symbiotic relationship between journalists, citizens, government officers, the private sector and even columnists like myself are free to agree or disagree with each other, correcting our opinions through each iteration of written material, thereby finetuning and sharpening the presentation and consumption of news in this organic fashion.
The business community relies on an environment in which media is able to fairly, critically and accurately report on the conditions of the economy in which they operate. Although many of the indices do not directly measure media freedom, reports like the Economic Freedom of the World Index by Fraser Institute do value the rule of law, impartial courts, and the integrity of the legal system in protecting property rights in a free economy. It will be interesting to see the court’s reaction in the judicial review filed by The Edge contesting its three-month suspension.
True enough, a study of 115 countries around the world by academics Alam and Shah (The Role of Press Freedom in Economic Development: A Global Perspective, February 2013) found a bidirectional relationship between press freedom and economic growth. This means that press freedom contributed to greater economic growth in the countries studied, and vice versa. These results coincide with similar indices produced by Reporters Sans Frontières and Freedom House.
Higher economic growth leads to better job opportunities, more value for the ringgit in our bank accounts, higher purchasing power for housing and our children’s education (present and future), and a better quality of life. This may be a long trajectory, but it can certainly be shown that the flourishing of civil rights produces better conditions for citizens and our families.
Many of these international indices show consistent findings, that countries with better protection of civil liberties such as media freedom also enjoy better economic rights and economic growth. This is not too surprising, since investors would be much more at ease entering a market in which information is abundant and not scarce, where news is readily available and not shrouded under a blanket of secrecy.
A source of steady, reliable and independent information about matters related to the local economy is highly valued by any private businessperson. News about, for instance, the stock market, the state of the domestic currency, sovereign wealth funds, the banking sector, government bonds and yes, even the strength of state-owned enterprises or government-linked companies (since government is present in such a large percentage of business in Malaysia), are of interest and concern.
Suffice to say that The Edge has built its credibility and reputation over the years in covering these subjects.
Does media freedom matter? Yes, and not just to journalists, and businesspeople seeking accurate reporting from various sources, but also to citizens who desire a plethora of media choice, better economic conditions and an improved quality of life.
In fact, one may go a step further to question the need for a printing permit at all. It is such archaic practice that lends itself to self-censorship, a practice all Malaysian media is familiar with. The government has in the past held that print media restrictions are necessary to safeguard against ethnic tension, an argument that does not hold water and is a convenient excuse.
The Internet will soon render these discussions moot. A more tech-savvy population will be able to circumvent website bans, and portals can be hosted anywhere in the world. The Malaysian government is living in the past if it thinks it can continue to stifle the flow of information and news. It should grow up and realise that guaranteeing such freedoms would be a net positive for all of us in the long run.