Sunday, May 2, 2021

Press freedom in the digital age

The Sunday Star
by Roger Tan

Can press freedom be further advanced when readers are given carte blanche to post whatever they like including unlawful and defamatory comments under the protection of anonymity?

Tomorrow is World Press Freedom Day (WPFD).

It is a day which we Malaysians must remember and pay tribute to those news media and media practitioners for reporting the truth. Many have done so through their sheer courage and perseverance, by standing up for the independence of the press in this country, without fear or favour. 

Needless to say, since Merdeka, some have also in their pursuits for a free press lost their own personal freedom in one way or another. 

In fact, the WPFD came about after the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) held a seminar in Windhoek, Namibia on the promotion of an independent and pluralistic African Press some thirty years ago. It culminated in the adoption of the Windhoek declaration for the development of a free, independent and pluralistic press on May 3,1991. May 3 was then chosen as the day to mark WPFD by the UN General Assembly in 1993. 

Regrettably, in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders on April 17, Malaysia slipped to 119, falling 18 spots from the previous year. 

On the other hand, if one is to go through the kind of comments being made by readers on the Malaysiakini online news portal, one may draw a conclusion, albeit erroneously, that there is absolute freedom of press in this country. Some of these comment sections, if not all, are accessible to the whole world, that is, to those who are not paid subscribers of the portal. Many of the commenters used a pseudonym when posting their comments. 

But on February 18, Malaysiakini was fined half a million ringgit by the Federal Court for contempt of court over five readers’ comments criticising the judiciary. 

When imposing the fine, Court of Appeal president Justice Rohana Yusuf, who chaired the seven-man panel said in the 6-1 majority decision, that the apex court was mindful that this case would attract world attention as the media had demonstrated their agitation and concern that this case would shackle media freedom and might eventually lead to a clampdown on freedom of the press. 

The apex court ruled that this unfortunate incident should serve as a reminder to the general public that expressing one’s view, especially by making unwarranted and demeaning attacks on the judiciary at one’s whims and fancies, could be tantamount to scandalising the court. 

“Whilst freedom of opinion and expression is guaranteed and protected by our Federal Constitution, it must be done within the bounds permissible by the law”, said Rohana. 

She stressed on the importance of maintaining public confidence in the Judiciary and the need to protect the dignity and integrity of the Judiciary as a whole, considering the nature of the judicial office is one which is defenceless to criticism, that is, judges cannot reply to their criticism and neither can they enter public controversy. 

Rohana also quoted Lord Denning who once said: “We must rely on our conduct itself to be its own vindication.”