May 2, 2008
Dato Seri Syed Hamid Albar
Minister of Home Affairs
Government of Malaysia
Blok D2, Parcel D, Pusat Pentadbiran
By facsimile: (603)-8889-1613
Dear Minister Albar,
The Committee to Protect Journalists warmly welcomes your April 20 statement indicating that your ministry intends to abolish the annual licensing renewal system for Malaysian news publications. As you noted in your statement, the decision will expand Malaysian press freedom.
Successive Malaysian governments have employed the threat of non-renewal to pressure local publications to self-censor critical news reporting. In light of this, we strongly encourage you to follow through on this stated commitment and also consider implementing other administrative and legal reforms aimed at liberalizing the highly restricted media environment in Malaysia.
In particular, we would encourage you to pursue either the reform or abolition of the various laws and regulations that give government authorities the power to restrict press freedom. These include the Printing Presses and Publications Act, Defamation Act, Official Secrets Act, Internal Security Act, and Sedition Act. Most of these allow for harsh punishments, including prison sentences, for journalists who report news which the government may unilaterally deem a threat to national security.
The inherent threat of these laws over the years has had a deleterious effect on press freedom and critical news reporting in Malaysia. While we were happy to learn that your ministry recently reversed its April 16 decision to reject the Tamil-language newspaper Makkal Osai‘s request for a new publishing license for 2008, the back-and-forth shows how arbitrary the process is.
Our colleagues at the Kuala Lumpur-based Center for Independent Journalism have noted that the mere abolition of your ministry’s annual licensing requirement would not necessarily limit the absolute power of discretion held by your office. They have called for a reinstatement of judicial review for Printing Presses and Publications Act-related decisions handed down by your office. We support this call.
Minister Alber, CPJ welcomes your government’s recent decision to grant for the first time a proper publishing permit for the opposition-affiliated newspaper Suara Keadilan. We hope that such decisions and your April 20 statement about newspaper license renewal are the first steps in a program of wide-ranging administrative and legislative reforms aimed specifically at allowing for greater press freedom.