Malaysian government tells editors to downplay reports on toll hike

alerts-button.jpgThe Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) is concerned with the latest interference in the media by the Malaysian government through a directive to downplay news of an increase in highway toll charges.

SEAPA joins our local partner, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), in calling for a stop to executive interference in media editorial matters.

Independent news site malaysiakini.com reported that on 12 December 2006, editors of newspapers and television stations were summoned to a meeting at the Parliament by Deputy Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Effendi Norwawi, Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin, and Works Minister S. Samy Vellu.

A spokeperson CIJ contacted from an English newspaper confirmed that editors were instructed not to play up reports about the rates hike, which was yet to be announced then. The editors were discreetly told to help “manage the public outcry” that was expected to follow the announcement, which was eventually made on 14 December.

“The government’s action indicates a blatant disregard for the role of a free media and the public’s right to information, and contradicts its pledge for transparent governance,” CIJ said in a 14 December release.

“Press freedom is becoming increasingly illusory as the Executive continues to exercise its power at the expense of the public’s right to access to information,” CIJ continued, reiterating its call for a Parliamentary Select Committee on Communication Rights to arrest the situation.

Such executive interference has been the norm in the newsrooms of mainstream media under the rule of the previous prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who stepped down in 2003 after 22 years of “benign” authoritarianism. Stringent anti-press laws and government ownership and control of virtually all mass media have ensured editorial compliance of such directives.

A similar instruction was given in March over the government’s decision to increase fuel prices. According to malaysiakini.com, editors were told to downplay opposing reactions, including public demonstrations.

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