Malaysia’s rise and fall on the press freedom index

MRO, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Press freedom conditions in Malaysia have continued to deteriorate since the start of 2021, with emergency measures enacted in response to the Covid-19 pandemic used to decree a harsh law criminalizing the spread of “fake news” that media analysts say targets journalists and deters critical coverage of government actions.

Media and rights groups have accused Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s Perikatan Nasional (PN) government of presiding over deteriorating press freedom conditions since coming to power last March. Under his watch, journalists and news portals have been investigated by the police and charged in court over their reporting.

In January, Muhyiddin asked the country’s king to grant him emergency powers to help the government rein in rising coronavirus infections. Many saw the move as a bid by the government to cling to power given the premier’s shrinking support in Parliament, which was effectively suspended under the emergency declaration. 

Using enhanced powers, Muhyiddin’s government sidestepped Parliament to impose an anti-fake news decree that punished the publishing or sharing any “wholly or partly false” information with penalties of up to 100,000 ringgit (USD $24,000) in fines or three years in prison, which it said was needed to counter misinformation about the pandemic.

Lawyers, rights groups, and opposition politicians responded to the details of the ordinance with alarm, calling the measures “dangerous” and “draconian.” The Bar Council of Malaysia said that the decree allows authorities to ignore several fair trial rules, making it a “highly dangerous piece of legislation which has the potential to be abused.”

Article 19, a British rights group that advocates for freedom of speech and information, issued a legal analysis of the law that determined it criminalized a broad swath of speech protected by the right to freedom of expression and creates criminal liability for civil society and media organizations, as well as social media platforms.

“The rapid enactment of the ordinance without any effective public consultation or legislative oversight raises significant concerns regarding the protection of freedom of expression and access to information in Malaysia, particularly during the critical period of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Article 19 in a statement.

Due to measures impacting media introduced during the pandemic, multiple probes against media outlets and cases of journalists being questioned or raided by police over their coverage, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Malaysia 18 places lower on its 2021 World Press Freedom Index

The annual press freedom index ranked Malaysia 119 out of 180 countries, a minus-18 drop and the biggest year-to-year fall of any country on the list. RSF said the recent anti-fake news decree was a move by the government to impose its own version of the truth and that worsening press conditions were linked to the formation of the PN government in March 2020.

Not long ago, Malaysia ranked 101 out of 180 countries, the highest score in Southeast Asia. It had moved up the ranking by 22 places, charting the biggest improvement among all 180 countries rated, under the nearly two-year rule of the reformist Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration, which was toppled last year due to political alliance shifting.

As part of its reform agenda, the PH coalition led by former premier Mahathir Mohamad, a former premier who in an earlier term oversaw press freedom abuses, set out to rescind and amend various laws pertaining to freedom of expression that previous governments had used to bring dissidents, independent media and political opposition to heel.

Mahathir’s government repealed a 2018 law that criminalized and punished spreading “fake news,” which observers have highlighted is strikingly similar to the emergency ordinance brought into force by Muhyiddin. Despite an atmosphere of greater pluralism and less self-censorship that took hold under PH, broader media reforms did not come to pass.

The PN government denies that it is clamping down on press freedom and dissenting voices, but for journalists, navigating the laws is a continuous challenge and access to officials overseeing the pandemic’s handling is more limited than previously. A recent precedent-setting contempt of court ruling has also put media organizations on edge.

In February, a Federal Court fined Malaysiakini, widely considered the most popular independent media portal in Malaysia, for contempt of court in relation to reader remarks posted in the comments section of an article. The 6-1 majority decision also ruled that the news portal’s editor-in-chief Steven Gan was not guilty of the same charge.

Malaysiakini was fined 500,000 ringgit (US$123,762), an amount that came as a surprise to the portal and observers as the Attorney-General’s Chambers had initially sought a 200,000 ringgit fine. Malaysian netizens successfully crowdfunded the entire sum of the hefty fine within five hours of the ruling in an encouraging show of solidarity.

In a separate incident last August, police raided the Kuala Lumpur offices of Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera and two other TV stations, confiscating computers in connection with a documentary that highlighted the alleged mistreatment of undocumented migrant workers in Malaysia during the pandemic.

Two Australian journalists at the broadcaster were told their work visas would not be renewed and seven staff in total reportedly face possible charges of sedition, defamation, and other breaches. A Bangladeshi man interviewed in the documentary was later deported and barred from entering Malaysia for life.

“Media operations in Malaysia are more controlled and restricted now more than ever – all since the change of government last year,” said Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) executive director Wathshlah Naidu. “We foresee Malaysia becoming more authoritarian if the state continues to penalize and intimidate the media in this manner.”