Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy. The government has a draconian legislative arsenal to restrict press freedom, which is maintained by a dynamic civil society reinforced by the country’s cultural diversity.
On the surface, Malaysia seems to have a rich media landscape, but the state media wield a great deal of influence: the news agency Bernama and the radio and TV broadcaster RTM both act as propaganda mouthpieces. Many of the mainstream media outlets are openly partisan, including Suara Keadilan, a newspaper that supports the centre-left PKR, and Harakah, a daily financed by the PAP, the main party on the Islamic right. The online media are much more active, and some of the outlets, such as Malaysiakini, Between The Lines and Sinar Harian, cherish their editorial autonomy.
The government exerts a great deal of political pressure to deter the media from tackling taboo subjects or from criticising politicians and government officials, and the authorities harass investigative reporters. The monarchy is an extremely sensitive subject. Any form of commentary or reporting deemed critical of the monarchy can result in prosecution and heavy penalties, leading to generalised self-censorship on the topic.
Press freedom is theoretically guaranteed by article 10 of the constitution, which provides for the freedom of expression. But draconian legislation allows the authorities to restrict these freedoms by jailing journalists – up to 20 years in prison for those accused of violating the 1948 Sedition Act and 14 years for the 1972 Official Secrets Act. The Communications and Multimedia Act gives the government strict control over the issuing of media licences, and the 2021 “anti-fake news” emergency ordinance gives it the completely arbitrary power to demand the removal of any report it regards as “false”.
Creating a media outlet is risky business in Malaysia, espeicially because the government uses its control over the licensing system to ensure pro-government editorial policies. Media ownership is highly concentrated, with just a few big owners threatening the independence and pluralism of the entire sector. Creating an online media outlet is much easier as long as it does not cross the implicit red lines dictated by the government.
Malay-language media, which are read by the majority of the population, are subject to more censorship than their counterparts in English, Chinese or Tamil. Nonetheless, such Islam-related issues as conversion, child marriages and apostasy – which were taboo until recently – are beginning to be covered.
Malaysian journalists are rarely the target of physical attacks, but some are subjected to judicial harassment and smear campaigns. Recent threats to journalism have included prosecutions forcing the victims to incur huge legal expenses, police searches of media outlets, violations of the confidentiality of journalists’ sources, and expulsions of foreign reporters or whistleblowers.