RSF reminds Malaysia’s new premier of his press freedom pledges
Press freedom was one of the campaign themes of Malaysia’s new prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, the unexpected winner of the 9 May general election, but he has already backed away from some of his promises in the past few days. In this open letter, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reminds him of his pledges and of the importance of press freedom in Malaysia.
Tun Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad
Perdana Menteri Malaysia Pejabat Perdana Menteri
Blok Utama, Bangunan Perdana Putra
Pusat Pentadbiran Kerajaan Persekutuan
Dear Prime Minister,
On 9 May, you led the opposition to an election victory for the first time in independent Malaysia’s history. You thereby represent the hope of a new Malaysia, which continues to be ranked no better than 144th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2018 World Press Freedom Index.
In the manifesto of the Pakatan Harapan opposition coalition, which you joined in 2016, you pledged that your government would guarantee press freedom. And you reiterated this promise in your statements during the election campaign.
You undertook to repeal all the draconian laws that have imposed a climate of oppression and self-censorship within the media for decades: the 1984 Printing Presses and Publications Act, the 1948 Sedition Act and the 2016 National Security Council Act, as well as the provisions of the 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act and the 2012 Security Offences (Special Measures) Act that restrict press freedom.
When Parliament adopted the so-called “Anti-fake news Act,” under which “news, information, data and reports” about Malaysia and its citizens that are “wholly or partly false” are punishable by up to six years in prison or a fine of 500,000 ringgits (105,000 euros) or both, you criticized this new law at a press conference and said you would repeal it as well.
You also undertook to create an independent media regulatory body and to ensure that the government would no longer be able to influence and manipulate the public broadcaster RTM and the government news agency Bernama.
Now that you head the Malaysian government, as its prime minister, you have a duty to keep your promises and to respect the undertakings you gave to guarantee freedom of the press.
However, your government still in formation, you went back on your campaign promises. Although you were yourself one of the first victims of the anti-fake news act, you announced a few days ago that it would no longer be repealed. Despite protests from journalists and representatives of parties in your alliance, you said that it would instead be amended in order to define the concept of false information more clearly. You also said that “there are limits” to press freedom like everything else.
We are extremely disturbed by this turnaround.
During the 22 years that you were the UMNO’s prime minister from 1981 to 2003, RSF had to condemn the way you persecuted all dissent. You ordered the closure of newspapers, imprisoned your critics, including journalists, harassed independent media outlets and used the Internal Security Act to force the media to censor themselves.
As you begin a new term as prime minister after remarkable elections, RSF will be paying close attention to the fate of the promises you gave to guarantee freedom of the press. We hope that your return to office will mark an end to the reign of self-censorship and an end to persecution of the media and the freedom to inform in Malaysia.