a new media council? for what purpose?

Editors meet Home Ministry on media council
S Pathmawathy Nov 12, 08 1:46pm http://www.malaysiakini.com/news/92923

The Home Ministry, in an attempt to revive plans to set up the controversial National Media Council, hosted a meeting of 30 top editors and representatives of media interest groups yesterday.

The meeting, which was chaired by Home Ministry secretary-general Abdul Aziz Mohd Yusof, was to gather views from top stakeholders of the print, broadcast and Internet media in the formation of a self-regulatory body for the media industry.

The Malaysian Press Institute (MPI), a body of 35 media organisations, kicked off the debate with its 11-point draft which briefly spelled out the functions as well as the format and funding of the council.

According to Home Ministry's Che Din Yusoh, the MPI’s draft was well-received by the majority although "some editors had reservations" on the mechanisms contained in the proposal.When contacted by Malaysiakini for comments, Che Din said "everybody gave their viewpoints on the feasibility of forming the media council... the majority was in favour, but with some opined that it could be another layer of law to curtail freedom"."There is some consensus although many still expressed some anxiety... but the ball is in their (media organisations) court," he said.

Asked if the ministry would do away with laws such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) which is widely considered a stumbling block to a freer media, Che Din argued that "it is better to agree to form it (the media council) first before reviewing other laws".

A press, not media councilHowever, not many editors agreed with the Home Ministry.They felt that the existing proposal was nowhere near the comprehensive solution needed to move the country towards a more freer society, while some also questioned the government's involvement in the project.The MPI model comprises not just the press but also the electronic and Internet media under one single body.

"We are trying to include everything but we don't know if it is viable or not," said Che Din.Previously journalists have asked for the council to be confined to print media as electronic an Internet media are already under the jurisdiction of the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC).There is no existing council in the world which incorporates all the different platforms.Following are the responses of some the editors and non-governmental media representatives after the two-hour meeting.

Steven Gan, Malaysiakini editor-in-chief

Because of the government’s past track record, there is a lot of suspicion on this media council proposal. That the proposal is coming from the Home Ministry raises alarm bells.At the meeting, The Sun editor Zainon Ahmad said Deputy Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak had expressed that he wants a more open society. If Najib indeed seeks an open society, there should be comprehensive law reforms to promote press freedom.One way is to set up a parliamentary select committee, consisting of MPs from both sides of the House, to identifying the laws that need to be repealed or amended.The government should not expect the media industry to regulate itself when it insists on telling editors and journalists what to do and what not to do. As such, laws constricting media freedom should be repealed. We should also enact new laws, such as Freedom of Information Act, to increase transparency.Only then can the media industry start work on setting up the council.

Norlila Mohd Daud, National Union of Journalists (NUJ) chairperson

My doubts are whether they really want to enhance press freedom. I am quite sceptical because the proposal is being mooted by the Home Ministry and this will be brought for discussion in the cabinet. It is not a very transparent process.They want to establish the council because they have been pushing for it for more than 40 years yet I cannot see the relevance of it.The MPI proposal is similar to the Indian and Indonesian media councils, but in Indonesia there are no laws such as the Official Secrets Act (OSA), Internal Security Act (ISA) or even the PPPA. These countries have a responsible body to monitor the media.I think the council would just appear to be another layer of control but if they are sincere then the government should first amend the laws before forming the council.

Wong Chun Wai, the Star group editor-in-chief

I am keeping an open mind on the proposal and I take it positively although we need to look at it further.The meeting was just a preliminary round, and issues in terms of structure, membership, whether it is statutory or voluntarily, must also be discussed before its formation.There is also a need for parallel reforms of the 24 legislations (which restrict press freedom), most importantly, the licensing act (PPPA).Nevertheless, it is good move as it promises greater democratic reforms but if we were to agree to it then the politicians must stay out.Abdul Aziz (Home Ministry secretary-general), who chaired the meeting, also shared our opinions for greater press freedom but he also said that it (the system) cannot expect to be reformed overnight.

Azman Ujang, MPI chairperson

Personally, I'm all for it. People who have their reservations and scepticism do not understand what the media council is all about and I don't share their scepticisms.The council is good for us journalists, just like the Bar Council which monitors the lawyers.It is not another layer of control. With its existence, we can work more professionally and it promotes best practices in journalism.This has got nothing to do with (restrictive) laws, for instance, the doctors and lawyers have laws governing them but they still have a council.The government is only facilitating the talks but the council will be run by an independent body. Therefore, those are two totally different things altogether.The media council is a good platform (for the media) to fight and ask the government to roll back the (restrictive) laws and serve as an instrument for us to come together.

V Gayathry, Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) executive director

The meeting was looking for an endorsement for the proposal and from the discussion, there was no clear (government) indication to review existing laws.Without that level of commitment from the government, it is difficult to convince the people that forming a media council is a good move.Their approach is to form the council in whatever format – statutory or voluntary – now, and it may not be perfect but set it up first then fix it later.Conceptually, I also feel there is problem as it is modelled along India's press council but in India and Indonesia, it (press freedom) is a right that is constitutionally protected.There must be some commitment (from the government) that laws would be reformed and there must be political will to see it through.

Ahiruddin Attan (also known as Rocky), National Alliance of Bloggers pro-tem chairperson

I opposed to setting up of the ‘media’ council because it is not practical to lump new media with the traditional media.I oppose it also because it is an attempt to regulate new media although it has been promised that the Internet will not face censorship. Therefore, there should not be an attempt to control it.The council, as it is being proposed by the Home Ministry appears to show that this an attempt to police the press.The meeting should focus on a ‘press’ council rather than a ‘media’ council and if a press council is set up, it must be independent rather then a statutory body.Nevertheless, the press council should not be used to bargain for the repeal of laws. Instead it should be done in tandem with the formation of the council and through the council, editors should push for reform of the restrictive laws.If we bargain then we probably would not have a press council, and the press council has its advantages as it safeguards journalists and promoted greater press freedom.