What the changes in the PPPA should mean to journalists

SEPT 23 — Now that quite a few pundits have weighed in on the prime minister’s Malaysia Day eve announcement, I’d like to put in my two-sen’s worth. I shall leave the broader implications of the security laws aside and being a journalist, I shall just concentrate on one of the announcements made — that of doing away with the annual renewal of licences for media organisations as currently mandated by the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 (PPPA).

What this means in practice is that if indeed this amendment gets passed in Parliament, existing print media organisations won’t need to renew their printing and publication permits on a yearly basis.

Like the other announcements that touched on security laws, there was a sense of jubilation when the PM first announced that media organisations need no longer renew their yearly licences.

But upon thinking further over this issue, two questions come to mind: Is the doing away with the licensing laws that good of a thing in practice and what does it mean for these media organisations — especially the mainstream print media (MSM) — in terms of how they report and write their stories?

There are many facets to the PPPA, and the requirement for print media organisations to obtain annual publishing permits is only one of them. While this is a step in the right direction, it however does not mean that media organisations are completely free from the clutches of government intervention as the PM did say that their licences could still be cancelled if regulations were flouted.

Which leads to the second question: Will the reporting by the MSM be any different from what it is today just because they no longer need to renew their permits annually?

It’s hard to say given that the MSM need to adapt their respective editorial policies in reaction to the PM’s announcement and while it’s tempting to just dismiss today’s MSM as government propaganda tools, we need to be fair and give them the time to make these adjustments.

In theory, the MSM should be free to write without fear or favour as the threat of not being able to print and publish has ostensibly been taken away. But in practice, my fear is that the MSM won’t immediately change much in regard to their editorial policies as they will still be walking on “egg shells” when reporting the news as they see it or making comments on government policies given that their permits could still be in jeopardy, should they “flout the regulations.”

It’s important to note that the government has not clearly defined what kind of regulations, if flouted, would result in MSM licences being revoked.

And the absence of such details does leave the issue still open for debate as to how the administration could still intervene in media organisations’ operations. Worst still, this ambiguity may allow wiggle room for the government to once again threaten to shut down MSM for not writing along government lines.

Another important point not to forget is that many of today’s MSM owners are political parties, which means that much of what is reported can still be “controlled” by the big boys above, even if they aren’t exactly flouting any regulations.

But let us just assume for discussion that the MSM will be given tacit approvals by their owners to push the journalism envelope more in this country, despite the threat facing them for flouting regulations, the question then would be: are the journalists themselves ready and up to the challenge of doing so?

Will they be willing to report the news as is, go after stories that expose wrongdoers with fervour, enforce checks and balances in the government system through the stories they write, or speak their minds in opinion pieces on issues that really matter to the country, even if it speaks against the government of the day?

Could it be that journalists in this country may not be able to do all that because they have been so ingrained with the sense that they can’t or haven’t been able to make any difference in a long while due to the years of government intervention, that they have effectively given up their roles and right as the fourth estate of the nation?

For the sake of the country, I hope this isn’t true. My hope is that there will still be many journalists who are still prepared to push the boundaries of good journalism.

In regard to this, it’s good to know that the online media has stepped up to fill some of the void left behind by the MSM. As noted in a recent New York Times article, where once Malaysians eager for independent news coverage might have looked to foreign newspapers, now they could simply log on to homegrown sites.

As some reforms are being made with regard to the press and as we pass another Malaysia Day, my hope is that journalists in Malaysia will do (and continue doing) their part according to their conscience and make journalism the centre cog in Malaysia’s wheel of change to becoming a freer democracy.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.


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