Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has still not fulfilled the promise of openness which he made when he came to power in 2003. Censorship and self-censorship have not gone away and media concentration in the hands of the families of government members has been further boosted this year.
On 7 December 2006, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who is also public security minister, told parliament that he planned to intervene regularly with the media to warn them off certain subjects. “If the media persist in not respecting the law, the ministry will send a caution, which could turn into a suspension or withdrawal of a licence”, he said. The government, which is extremely vigilant on issues which might provoke tension between the country’s different communities, regularly puts the press under pressure. Sensitive subjects are censored or avoided completely. For example, in March, demonstrations against a hike in the price of petrol went off without any coverage in the main media. In June, the presenter of a radio talk show in Chinese was replaced and the phone-in section of the programme was axed. In the same way, in November, police summoned several journalists to tell them to cut back their coverage of a particularly grisly murder in which police officers were implicated.
The rare independent publications are to be found online, including Malaysiakini which did not suffer any official harassment in 2006. On the other hand, bloggers and discussion forums did find themselves in the government’s sights.
The Public Security ministry and censorship bodies are also very prompt to defend good morals in the press. In November, a weekly and its editor were suspended for having published an article about sexuality. Hundreds of international publications and books on sex and religion are banned in the country. The authorities invoke Article 6 (2) of the press law to punish media accused of putting out indecent news.
The Danish cartoons case also caused damage to the Malaysian press. Three publications were suspended, one of them permanently. The government was quick to politically exploit the case, once again condemning western arrogance.
The government has an impressive legal arsenal at its disposal. The 1984 law on publications and the written press covers books and newspapers as well as foreign publications. It gives discretion to the Ministry of Internal Security to grant or revoke newspaper publication licences. The 1948 sedition law, inherited from the British colonial era, is poorly defined. It punishes “seditious tendencies” such as incitement “to hatred or contempt of the government, administration, or the justice system”, provocation “of discontent between subjects, hostility between the races or classes” or challenges to “constitutional articles about the language (...) and the sovereignty of the rulers".
As in Singapore, there are very strong links between ruling parties and the media. The biggest press group, Media Prima, is owned by Malaysia Resources Corporation Berhad which has close ties with the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and the government. Media Prima owns the leading English-language newspaper The New Straits Times, the second biggest Malaysian-language paper Berita Harian, Maly Mail, Harian Metro and the Shin Min Daily News. In addition, Media Prima owns four terrestrial TV channels.
In 2006, the group Sin Chew owned by Malay business magnate Tiong Hiew King strengthened its control of the Chinese-language press in buying Nanyang Siang Pau, adding to his ownership of the Sin Chew Daily and Guangming Daily. This press tycoon, who also has a presence in Hong Kong and south-east Asia, does not hide his ambition to build a worldwide Chinese press empire.