Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Irony of Press Freedom in Malaysia: Anwar Ibrahim Buys a Newspaper

In many places, press freedom is assured by strictly separating press ownership from the political elites. An independent press is said to provide that objectivity that ensures the presentation of a variety of views. When the press is controlled by the state--or by the principal political actors within a system of government--the information provided is said to be less useful to readers. Less informed readers are said to be less able to fully participate in a democratic state and exercise their power (to vote and participate) effectively. Of course, most states deviate from the press freedom ideal. In places like Cuba, the deviation is significant. But there the theory is that there is only freedom through control. Bad information is worse than no information. Appropriate information suitable for the perpetuation of the state and the state political system requires constant vigilance. In other places there are varying degrees of control relationships between elites and the press. In some places, press freedom is possible only when every stakeholder in the political process has access to its own press.

In this context it is interesting to note that "The Malaysian government plans to give opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s political party a permit to start its own newspaper as part of reforms to allow more press freedom, according to news reports yesterday." Malaysia to Give Leader Permit to Start Newspaper, Taipei Times, April 21, 2008, at 4. It seems that in Malaysia, other political parties have newspapers. These serve as th voice through which the views of these parties are filtered, amplified and leveraged. They report the news and promote the political agendas of its owners. This sort of press ownership could be troubling unless all political parties are permitted the same opportunity to sell their "news." And it is said, in Malaysia at least, to promote accountability in government--since the parties out of power may use their newspaper ownership to communicate their political agendas directly tot he people. “For me the bottom line is that we need press freedom in order for us to have a check and balance in government,” Id. (quoting Malaysian Home Minister Syed Hamid). Of course, that sort of thing could be dangerous in Malaysia, as Anwar Ibrahim well understands, especially when someone like Mahatir Mohamad is in power.

But there is a fly in the ointment. The Malaysian state still licenses newspapers. That means that only those papers willing to play by the government's rules can publish, or continue to publish. The local Tamil newspaper learned this the hard way.
"The announcement came days after the government suspended the license of a Tamil-language newspaper, which catered to some of Malaysia’s ethnic Indians, accusing it of fomenting racial tensions. The crackdown against the Makkal Osai, or People’s Voice, was slammed by critics as a blow to press freedom in the country. Syed Hamid, however, defended the move, saying the newspaper had breached the government’s media guidelines. Those guidelines include keeping silent on issues that can stir racial tensions in the country, a multiethnic nation comprising majority Malay Muslims and minority Chinese and Indians."
Id. As long as the state can control publication, it can determine the limits of acceptable political discourse in the state. That creates the danger of abuse. Something quite possible in states like Malaysia. But it is also not unreasonable--given Malaysia's volatile history of race and inter-ethnic relations. So the great irony in democratic systems. In some ways, press rights exercised by the great political stakeholders may, in the aggregate, provide a greater likelihood of accountability than systems, like that of the United States, where there is an ostensible separation between stakeholders and players. Yet this system can work only if either everyone reads all viewpoints (highly unlikely) or readers are moved to political dialog. Manipulation is still possible. But it is less subtle than under systems in which the press pretends that their reporters are a-political, or even worse, in systems in which the state controls the press and readers must read between the lines for an accurate view of the state of things. Malaysia reminds us that the theory of press freedom and its successful application may not work in tandem. Anwar Inbrahim and his political party will run their newspaper so they may participate more fully in the political life of Malaysia. But their newspaper cannot be understood as a neutral project. That is the bad news, The good is that people who read it will understand this and use it in filtering the news presented. The same informed reading is not possible in the United States where the press exerts a tremendous influence but hides its viewpoint, perhaps even from itself.

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