Leader’s Office to convene conference next month inviting all MPs, political
parties, mass media and NGOs to a campaign for enactment of Freedom of
Media Conference Statement
by Lim Kit Siang
(Parliament, Wednesday): The 2005 World Press Freedom Day celebrated worldwide yesterday was again ignored by the Malaysian government, without any commitment to restore press freedom in Malaysia.
Six years ago, when Abdullah was first appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister, there were high hopes that he would accord priority to restore public confidence in various key government institutions by giving the Home Ministry a human face, including loosening up and removing the press controls in the country to usher an era of free, fair and responsible press in Malaysia.
This was why on the occasion of the World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 1999, some 600 journalists in Malaysia - which grew to over 1,000 journalists the following World Press Freedom Day 2000 - presented a memorandum to Abdullah calling for the repeal of the Printing Presses and Publications Act and other repressive laws fettering the development of a free and responsible press as well as the enactment of a Freedom of Information Act.
Abdullah had given a solemn undertaking to the Malaysian journalists at the time that he would give their memorandum serious consideration.
Abdullah has become Prime Minister in the past 18 months but after seven World Press Freedom Days from 1999 to 2005, Malaysians are still waiting for the outcome of his “serious consideration” of the press freedom memorandum of over 1,000 Malaysian journalists.
There has been no distinct improvement in press freedom in Malaysia in the past 18 months of Abdullah premiership, with even indications of a deterioration of press freedom.
Malaysia’s international ranking for press freedom remain dismally low, whether in the Worldwide Press Freedom Index by the international press organization, Reporters sans Frontier (RSF) or the Global Press Freedom Ranking of Freedom House.
In October last year, RSF released its Third Annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index, ranking Malaysia 122th out of 167 countries, a fall of 18 places from 104th ranking the previous year and five places behind Indonesia (ranked No. 117) when in 2003, Malaysia was positioned six places ahead as having greater press freedom than Indonesia.
Last Wednesday, the New York City-based think-tank Freedom House, which has been ranking countries according to their degree of press freedom since 1980, released its Global Press Freedom Ranking, with Malaysia ranked No. 152 out of 194 countries, lower than Taiwan (No. 44) , South Korea (No. 66), Philippines (No. 77), Thailand (No. 95), Sri Lanka (No. 116), Indonesia (No. 119), Pakistan (No. 126), Cambodia (No. 128), Singapore (No. 139), Afghanistan and Bangladesh (No. 145).
Indonesia’s rating in the Freedom House Global Press Freedom Ranking had improved considerably from 77 points in 1997 to 58 in 2005, moving from the “not free” category (61 – 100 points) to the “partly free” category (31 – 60 points)in the past seven years since 1999. Malaysia had remained in the “not free” category in the past decade, although with a better rating than Indonesia in 1997, with 61 points, but we have lost out in the past seven years, as illustrated by the following comparative table:
Freedom House Global Press Freedom Rating
Malaysia Indonesia Cambodia Singapore
1997 61 77 65 66
1998 61 77 65 66
1999 66 53 62 66
2000 70 49 61 66
2001 70 47 61 68
2002 71 53 68 68
2003 71 56 64 66
2004 69 55 63 64
2005 69 58 62 66
Status: Free (0-30)/Partly Free (31-60)/Not Free (61-100)
When he became Prime Minister, Abdullah pledged a “clean, incorruptible, modest and beyond suspicion” government and called on Malaysians to tell him the truth.
All these promises of an open, clean and accountable government will come to nought if the people’s right to information is not recognized or entrenched by law through the enactment of a Freedom of Informaion Act.
In October 1979, I sought to move a private member’s bill on Freedom of Information Act and during the debate on the Royal Address in March 1997, I had called for a new mindset in keeping with an information society by regarding government information as belonging to the people and as a general rule, accessible by the people, and not government property and monopoly which is none of the people’s business.
To meaningfully mark the 2005 World Press Freedom Day, the Parliamentary Opposition Leader’s Office will convene a conference next month inviting all MPs, political parties, mass media and NGOs to a campaign for the enactment of Freedom of Information Act.
The right to information holds within it the right to seek information as well as the duty to give information, to create, store, organize and make it easily available, and to withhold it only when it is in the public interest to do so.
The right to information lays the foundation upon which to build good governance, transparency, accountability and participation, and to eliminate corruption.
Research has shown that countries with access to information laws are also perceived to be the least corrupt. Out of the ten countries scoring best in Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perception Index, nine had effective legislation enabling the public to see government files. Of the ten countries perceived to be the worst when it comes to corruption, not even one had a functioning access to information regime.
Malaysia should embrace and spread the message that open government with right to access information is the antidote to corruption. At present, only 11 out of 54 Commonwealth countries have access to information laws, and Malaysia is not one of them.
As Chairman of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC), Malaysia should be setting the example of leadership by introducing liberal access to information legislation with full participation by the civil society to underline that the right to access to information is central to good governance and development.
Unfortunately however, there seems to be more and more instances of decreasing government respect for the right to information in Malaysia, with the cult of secrecy triumphing over the culture of openness and accountability, as illustrated by the following cases:
1. The unusual move by the Department of Environment (DOE) requiring some of its personnel to reaffirm a declaration under the Official Secrets Act (OSA) following media disclosures in the past few weeks on the inability of DOE officers to enforce environmental laws effectively, including the scandal of the death of Sarawak Department of Environment officer, Rumie Azzan Mahile, whose wife and family believed he was killed because of his diligent and conscientious investigation into toxic wastes scandal. I have said in Parliament that although the police have claimed that there was no foul play in Rumie’s death – we seem to be seeing a replay of the murder of auditor Jalil Ibrahim in Hong Kong in the Bumiputra Malaysia Finance scandal more than 20 years ago.
2. The failure and delay to release in toto, without censorship, the complete 433-page Police Royal Commission of Inquiry report to restore public confidence in the efficiency, professionalism and integrity of the police force.
3. The Energy, Water and Communication Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Lim Keng Yaik has reneged on the substance of his undertaking to Parliament to raise in Cabinet the establishment of a parliamentary select committee on the two water bills, one on the water industry and the other on the National Water Services Commission. But what is equally serious is the government failure to make public the numerous reports and studies on the water industry in the country, costing millions of ringgit of public fund, for the information of MPs and the civil society – like the latest study by Peat Marwick Consultants (KPMG) commissioned by the Ministry. All these reports and studies should be made public.
4. The Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) has complained of being kept in the dark about the proposed National Health Insurance Scheme. It is not only the MMA, but MPs, the civil society and the 26 million Malaysians who have been kept in the dark, when the scores of studies which had been commissioned by the government in the past decade should be publicly accessible to all interested parties. Health Minister, Datuk Dr. Chua Soi Lek should make all previous studies on the National Health Insurance scheme available to MPs, the media, civil society and the public.
5. Last weekend, I met and asked a Suhakam Commissioner why the Suhakam 2004 Report has not been tabled in the April meeting of Parliament as required by statute. He was taken aback that the 2004 Suhakam Report had not been tabled in Parliament as it had already been submitted to the relevant authorities. Is someone withholding the Suhakam Report 2004 from the April meeting of Parliament?
6. But the greatest concern about the growing intolerance for an informed society and open minds is the recent announcement of the government ban of 11 books, including two books by Karen Armstrong, A History of God (1993) and Muhammad – A Biography of the Prophet (1992); Phil Parshall’s "The Cross and the Crescent" (1989), the National Geographic Society’s classic "Great Religions of the World" (First Edition 1971) and Fatima Mernissi’s “Women and Islam". No explanation has been given to date for the ban, why books which have been in Malaysian homes and libraries, like National Geographic Society’s “Great Religions of the World” which have been bought by Malaysians for the past 35 years and Karen Armstrong’s books bought by Malaysians for the past decade, have suddenly become prohibited publications and a criminal offence to possess them. Is the Islam Hadhari advocated by the government a prelude to an era of banned books and even the burning of books in Malaysia? I propose to meet the Minister for Home Affairs, Datuk Azmi Khalid for the reasons for the ban on the 11 books and its implications, whether it would lead to the banning of hundreds and thousands of other books.
Lim Kit Siang, Parliamentary Opposition Leader, MP for Ipoh Timur & DAP Central Policy and Strategic Planning Commission Chairman