Can the media regulate themselves?

by Hafidz Baharom

Last week at the Malaysian Social Media Week, Datuk Abdul Rahman Dahlan sounded off the media by saying that it should strive for self-regulation instead of the government doing it. In fact, these thoughts were also relayed by Claire Rewcastle Brown, who said that the government should keep its hands off the news.

We need to start seriously discussing how the media can have its own, independent regulating agency set up away from the government that will oversee its members. If not, we will continue seeing more media outlets being blocked, denied licenses and even finding them suspended.

It happened to The Heat, The Edge, The Malaysian Insider and Sarawak Report as well as Asia Sentinel, and we are expecting to see it happen to more publications after this.

But questions continuously plagues us is this; what would self-regulation look like, and how different would it be as compared to now?

Who would play the active roles? Would it be the journalist unions, associations and institutions, or would it be under yet another government-based commission such as the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC)?

Because if it is akin to having the MCMC, then there will definitely be no difference as compared to now. After all, the MCMC has taken the initiative to block news portals simply for being “confusing”.

If causing “confusion” were such an issue, shouldn’t even Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s be blocked for his multiple different replies regarding the RM2.6 billion donation? In fact, wouldn’t that mean the MCMC would have to block even the 1Malaysia Development Bhd website, and even the Attorney General’s chambers?

Could banking websites be blocked as well if people were “confused” by the terms of the loans? Can we even ask the MCMC to block any software which has those long End User Licensing Agreements during installation that we never, ever read in full before simply clicking “Agree”.

And of course, Tan Sri Salleh Keruak himself should be blocked, considering he has confused the entire Malaysian public by saying that freedom of speech and expression is a privilege, and not a right as mentioned in our Federal Constitution.

But at the same time, if such a media commission receives a complaint — just like how the MCMC said they received “complaints” about The Malaysian Insider” — then would these complaints be made public?

And what action would the commission take against the wrongful party? A censure which allows the case to be taken to court? Or would it be granted the ability to legally apply penalties?

It is time that the media fraternity think this through for itself before the government goes about doing it without their participation. Personally, even the thought of such a commission without the participation of the alternative media outlets makes me cringe.

But at the same time, let us discuss the tradeoffs on what government will have to let go.

First of all, if there is a regulating commission, there would no longer be a need for the Printing Press and Publications Act. Why would you need to license media at all, since complaints will be handled directly with the set up of a media commission for all publications both online and offline.

At the same time, there would be no need to block websites any more, since it would be under the media commission’s purview, not the MCMC. In fact, Malaysia can no longer boast its Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) status now that the MCMC has gone and blocked websites.

On top of all this, there would be a need to reconsider adding the ability to declassify all documents deemed official secrets after a few decades.

I’m guessing this was the main reason Tun Mahathir Mohamed decided to take direct action against the writers of a site instead of blocking the site wholesale.

The truth is, the media are watchdogs against the conflicting statements of the government as well as those in power. In so far, they have proven to highlight the very “confusing” statements of our government to the point that the people are not confused, but angry.

After all, Malaysians are not stupid enough to simply forget that a donation not used for personal gain from an Arab prince, coincides with some RM1.5 billion used for the last general election.

Similarly, I do believe everyone has a right to read when a minister says that Najib Razak is God’s Chosen One, or even when Jakim says Malaysians must obey their leaders but omit the duties of leaders when they lose the trust of the people.

And if any story refuses to name a source — if it’s The Malaysian Insider saying the MACC advisory panel pushed for charges to be filed against the prime minister, or even Utusan Malaysia saying our National Kompleks Kraftangan would be demolished to make way for the MRT — then there is a need for confirmation from those involved. Not the media, but the agencies and companies mentioned.