By Chiong Yoke Kong

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia--Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri recently visited Media Prima in Sri Pentas and claimed that the government guarantees freedom of the press.

Nonetheless, the Prime Minister’s verbal assurance does not help in protecting Malaysians’ freedom of expression. Amid the pandemic, the PN government where the prime minister belongs frequently stepped up its media censorship, restricted free speech, and maliciously targeted journalists who didn’t toe the official line.

If the Prime Minister is sincere in guaranteeing press freedom and freedom of expression, he should start constructing a healthier media environment instead of paying lip service. Among all, the government should repeal or amend various draconian laws that infringe on press freedom and freedom of expression, as well as enact laws that truly guarantee press freedom, free flow of information, and the public’s rights to information.

When the Pakatan Harapan came to power, it tabled a bill to repeal the Anti-Fake News Act and was passed in the Parliament after the third reading. However, the Dewan Negara, of which BN formed the majority, tried to rebuff the repeal of the act. When the PH government worked hard in repealing repressive laws, the BN always attempted to sabotage the efforts by any means necessary.

The then opposition leader in the Parliament was none other than the current Prime Minister Ismail Sabri.

Many draconian and notorious laws that trample on freedom of the press and freedom of expression still exist, including the Sedition Act 1984, Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, and the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984.

These laws have often been used by the BN or PN government to take action, threaten, harass, and repress journalists, civil society, members of the opposition, human rights groups, and dissidents in general.

In the past two years, many instances whereby the BN-PN government repressed journalists proved that the government had always been restricting freedom of the press and limiting freedom of speech to create white terror.

On May 4, 2020, South China Morning Post journalist Tashny Sukumaran was summoned by the police for questioning for two hours under Section 504 of the Penal Code and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act over her report on a migrant raid by the Immigration Department in Kuala Lumpur.

On July 3, 2020, seven Al Jazeera journalists were investigated over their report on the government’s inhuman treatment of immigrants during Covid-19. Five of them were ordered to leave Malaysia within 30 days and faced difficulties in renewing their work visas.

On February 19, 2021, Attorney-general Idrus Harun filed charges against Malaysiakini for contempt of court over comments made by 5 readers. Malaysiakini had been found guilty and fined RM500 thousand.

Therefore, if Prime Minister Ismail Sabri intends to ensure that his assurance of guaranteeing freedom of the press and freedom of expression holds water, he and his government must lead by example by repealing or amending the repressive laws that violate our fundamental freedom.

*Chiong Yoke Kong is the state assemblyman for Tanah Rata.*