Are We A Free Nation?

A Joint Merdeka Day Message

30 August 2008

Independence means that the nation is free from any imposed political domination; citizens are sovereign and are masters of their own destiny. For that to be true, they must at least be able to think freely, express and exchange opinion, and, obtain and disseminate information without fear or favour.

As we celebrate the 51st anniversary of our Merdeka tomorrow and the 45th anniversary of Malaysia’s establishment in two weeks’ time, we should be celebrating our political adulthood. We should be proud that as citizens, we are a truly sovereign people, ruled by nothing more than the collective free will of our citizenship. We invite all Malaysians to ponder before lighting fireworks and joining the parade: Are we truly free? Are we truly sovereign?

Are we free? Just on the eve of Merdeka Day, one of Malaysia’s most popular news portal, Malaysia Today, was blocked by internet service providers under the instruction of the Malaysia Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC). This instruction denied millions of Malaysians, who have shunned the mainstream media, their primary information source. The MCMC has cited the Section 263 of the Communications and Multimedia Act, 1998 to force ISPs to use their best endeavour “to prevent his/her facilities from being used to violate any law in the country”. It is unfortunate that MCMC acted without Malaysia Today and its editor Raja Petra Kamaruddin being convicted or proven in court of any criminal offence. By invoking the block, the MCMC contravenes the government’s promise of no censorship and less regulation in the internet, when the multi-media super corridor was launched in 1998. It has also broken the law as Section 3 of the CMA states clearly that “Nothing in this Act shall be construed as permitting the censorship of the Internet.” So, what has produced MCMC to toe the political line rather than adhere to the law?

Are we free? Just two weeks before Merdeka Day, the Home Ministry decided that we cannot read two more books, on top of at least 1443 books that were banned since 1971. One of the two latest banned books is a volume titled “Muslim Women and the Challenge of Islamic Extremism” authored by international experts and edited by renowned Malaysian sociologist, Prof Norani Othman. The book was published three years ago, so why the ban only now? Did the Home Ministry censorship board take three years to understand its content? In fact, are they capable of reading and understanding an academic book when they have not even produce a book review to pinpoint its flaws? Can we be a free nation when bureaucrats whose reading ability is questionable are deciding what we can and cannot read? Their power to curb freedom of expression stems from the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 (PPPA) which requires all periodicals to apply for annual renewable permits, which can be revoked and suspended by the Minister at anytime at his absolute discretion. In 1987, under Operasi Lalang eight newspapers were suspended. Operasi Lalang also saw the arbitrary detention of 106 socio-political activists.

Are we free? When questioning of government policies or the judicial process by citizens can land one in prison under the Sedition Act, 1948, when truth cannot be a defense against charges, where “seditious tendency” are broadly and vaguely defined, when newspapers can be suspended for allegedly containing seditious matter (Section 9), what’s left of our public space to discuss issues that matter most and are therefore often termed “sensitive”?

Are we free? When there are 66 persons still detained arbitrarily and indefinitely without trial for opposing the government’s policies under the Internal Security Act (ISA) 1960, when the Minister can subjectively ban any publications deemed to be “prejudicial to the national interest, public order, or security of Malaysia”, and his/her decisions cannot be reviewed by the judiciary. Are we free from the danger of arbitrary judgment of one politician? And, are we free when the very same repressive colonial laws that suppressed peoples’ struggles in the pre-Merdeka era are still continued and used randomly by the present government even after Merdeka?

Are we free? When citizens have no freedom of information to learn about public policies and decision-making process, when politicians and bureaucrats can easily deny public access to details of lucrative contracts and concessions, justified under the Official Secrets Act 1972 (OSA), is it any wonder that corruption and power abuse become rampant? When we pay taxes and yet do not have the right to know how the money is spent, are we really the boss of the government? Or have we, the rakyat, instead become slaves to the very people we have elected?

Unfortunately, we are not free given the flaws and shortcomings in the CMA, PPPA, Sedition Act, ISA, OSA and other media-related laws. We will continue to be enslaved until we become truly politically free and democratic. We had merely replaced foreign colonial masters with domestic ones who rule over us by insisting that we are incapable of thinking and making our own judgment.

A true national independence is, therefore, overdue. It is possible only if all the media-related laws are put under thorough reviews and after taking on board the concerns of all Malaysians, regardless of economic interest, social-cultural background and political affiliation. A parliamentary select committee on media law reform must, therefore, be made a priority in our quest for independence, democracy and good governance. Calls to celebrate or to substantiate our independence by any political coalitions, are hollow if without a concrete commitment and roadmap to media law reform.

We call upon all Malaysians to press for the demand of media law reform by endorsing the 2008 Memorandum on Media Freedom on www.benar.org. The campaign for media law reform is extended to 27 October 27 2008, the anniversary of 1987 Operasi Lalang. Until we can ensure the freedoms of citizens and the media, Merdeka is not achieved. Let us fight for our second independence, this time from domestic authoritarianism – Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!

A Joint statement by

1. Aliran Kesedaran Negara (Aliran)

2. Benar for Free and Fair Media (Benar)

3. Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ)

4. Civil Rights Committee, Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall (CRC-KLSCAH)

5. Civil Society Initiative for Parliamentary Reform (CSI@Parliament)

6. Gerakan Mansuhkan ISA (GMI)

7. Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall Youth Section (KLSCAH-YS)

8. Malaysia Youth and Student Democratic Movement (DEMA)

9. National Alliance of Bloggers (All-Blogs)

10. People’s Parliament

11. Empower (Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti, Selangor)

12. Sister in Islam (SIS)

13. Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM)

14. Writer Alliance for Media Independence (WAMI)

This statement was initiated by Benar and WAMI. For details, please contact Wong Chin Huat (019-3502823) or Maria Chin Abdullah (0133422931)

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